Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bibliophile: Returning Full Circle At University of Waterloo

 “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”
― Henry Ward Beecher

First: I wrote something this week that got published at First Person Scholar. Funny how often a site where you sit on the editorial board publishes your stuff. Check it out!

Second, have  I got a surprise for you. This week, we'll be looking at the new books from.... my home town university! Yes, after many, many months, my alma mater has updated its new books page. After so many trips to universities so far away, we may finally return home. And now, since we've eased up on the rules, I can even grant it a name: welcome, everyone, for a very special Bibliophile, in which we examine the new books at the University of Waterloo.  After the break.

Fast food nation : the dark side of the all-American meal / Eric Schlosser
We begin the tour with the call numbers that appear to follow the Dewey Decimal system rather than the Library of Congress, for reasons I can't begin to fathom. This book was originally published in 2001, but now has an updated afterword. The subject is pretty clear; in a world before Supersize Me, Schlosser looks at the evils of fast food, not just in terms of health and obesity, but also in terms of how it's changed global food production and widened the gap between the rich and the poor.  The afterword updates the issue, including the growing interest in local and organic food. I'm right in the middle of an anthology of cultures of eating in the 19th century, and while it's a great book, it looks like this book has the immediate relevancy that my current reading material may be lacking. Fast food is a particularly uncomfortable issue for me: for a vegetarian, I have some rather horrible eating habits. I get enough protein, but beyond that, my habits are atrocious--oodles of sugar, carbs, and grease. And fast food is a big staple of my diet. I remember reading in... Jameson, I want to say... an argument that fast food was the only original cuisine America created. It's not the best legacy.

Aesthetics of the Virtual / Roberto Diodato ; Translated by Justin L. Harmon ; Revised and Edited by Silvia Benso ; Foreword by John Protevi.

That's a lot of cooks in the kitchen for a single authored book.  This is from the SUNY series on Contemporary Italian Philosophy. Diodato argues that the virtual body is a new entity, ontologically speaking, one that hasn't been seen in the world before. Following Aristotle's Physics, it's natural and artificial, being and event, external and internal image, hybrids between logical-computational text and human bodies with technological protheses. And in that vein, Didato revisits classic concepts such as mimesis, representation, illusion and reality, images and imagination, and the theory of sensory knowledge. You can definitely tell that this book is coming out of continental philosophy; in North American digital studies, it would be very much against the current trends to declare that the virtual body is radically different from a person's ordinary self, that it's a body that operates from a different set of rules. Following works like Beth Coleman's Hello, Avatar, majority opinion has it that it's more of one facet of our being among many.  It's 171 pages, $70 for the hardcover and $25 for both the paperback and eBook. (And boo at prices being the same for eBook and paperback.)

Jesus and the subversion of violence : wrestling with the New Testament evidence / Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld.   London : SPCK Publishing, 2011.
I'll admit, a part of me was really hoping for this book to be about Jesus and the MMA. But its subject is much closer to what its title suggests: an analysis of how violence is presented in the New Testament. My parents are pretty devout when it comes to church attendance, and I spent a lot of years going to a Protestant denomination church in my childhood (in a predominantly Catholic town, so that was interesting). And being a bookish sort, that meant I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. The break between the Old Testament and the New always interested me; the New Testament is much, much more anti-violence than the Old, to the point where they seem almost to describe different religions entirely. (Or so my pre-teen mind thought. Granted, the pre-teen mind is not really calibrated for the finer points of religious discussion.) It always struck me as exceptionally incongruous that this argument for living in terms of poverty and peace has been taken up by some of the most war-mongering and powerful nations in Western history. But Neufeld argues that there are some exceptionally violent passages in the New Testament, and the challenge is how to meet their implications--do we quarantine them from the rest of the message, or wrestle with their implications? ...I'm betting the word "wrestle" is going to come up fairly often here.

 Imaginary friends : representing Quakers in American culture, 1650-1950 / James Emmett Ryan. 2009
When I think pop culture representations of Quakers, two things come to mind. First, there's the Psi-Man series by Peter David (written under the pen name David Peters) wherein the protagonist is a man with psychic powers, on the run from a clandestine agency that wants him to use his powers to attack their foes. And the other is Crossfire, a book by Nancy Kress, wherein a Quaker group is a large part of the community colonizing a new human world, not realizing there are people there before them. In both cases, it's the nonviolence part of the Quakers that really gets emphasized--and it's striking, looking at the two of them, how much the concept of nonviolence runs counter to Western story tropes. Most of our stories are situated around protagonists causing large amounts of violence--usually against people who deserve it, of course. Neither of those books were written before 1951, though, so they're outside Ryan's purview. What he wants to do is illustrate how the portrayal of Quakers--regardless of whether that portrayal is accurate--served as a religious conscience for America, from serving as anarchic figures in the 17th century to moral exemplars now. I fully agree with that range--it was very strange in my 18th century drama class to see that Quakers were usually used in comedies as shorthands for religious hypocrisy--very different from their modern portrayal. It's not my area at all, but it sounds like it could be an interesting read for someone who wanted to see how a religious group can singlehandedly come to reference very specific things in the American group mind. Uh, very specific *positive* things.

Meme wars : the creative destruction of neoclassical economics : a real world economics textbook / by Kalle Lasn. 2012
That's a title with a lot of things going on, and the rare double colon is the least of theme. We've got a reference to "ideas, but on the internet" via memes, creative destruction as a thinking man's oxymoron, a shift from traditional economic models, and a claim to real world authenticity. The Amazon blurb makes a big deal out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Remember when it looked like that was going to be a thing? Like people on the left could actually organize long enough to do something meaningful? Oh, for the wild, heady days of six months ago. Meme Wars is a model for how that change can/would have taken place, as it "aims to accelerate the shift into this new paradigm that takes into account psychonomics, bionomics, and other aspects of our physical and mental environment." I admire the effort, and Lasn certainly has an established pedigree from his work at AdBusters. I think I get a much better sense of where the book is coming from after reading this interview. If I'm parsing it right, Lasn is saying that the Occupy movement failed in ever properly framing that one, key issue that it wanted to solve. And this book takes the approach is that what the issue is, the one thing that needs to be done before all else to fix the system, is to attack and question the roots of the prevailing economic model right at its base. And at the same time, it's looking critically at the remnants of left political movements and asking whether there's anything left worth saving. Hmm. That sounds a lot more worth reading than it did at first glance. I'm skeptical but intrigued. 

After the music stopped : the financial crisis, the response, and the work ahead / Alan S. Blinder.2013.
Blinder's book, in comparison, is a more traditional economic title, though most things would more traditional, in comparison. First, it claims that it has an edge on most accounts of the financial crisis, in that it's deliberately held off, so it can take a wider scope on how it happened. It started with the housing bubble, but Blinder argues that the bond bubble was more important, liking this level of finance to the circulatory system of the economic body. That's a pretty effective cognitive metaphor, though I'll admit I don't have the background to assess its accuracy. And the resulting "arrest" showed how interrelated the global market was--though Blinder absolutely sees the whole problem as one that started in the US and moved outward. The second part is what the US government successfully did to prevent the e worst, and what needs to be done in the future. It sounds like a good summary, one that has the full advantage of a long period of hindsight. Generally, as a sidenote, I like to have my titles use metaphors a bit more fully--this book, as you may imagine, has very little to do with music.

Studying social networks : a guide to empirical research / Marina Hennig ... [et al.] ; in collaboration with Stephen P. Borgatti, Lothar Krempel, and Michael Schnegg. 
I can't say it's something that I do myself very much, or even something I have interest in doing myself, but I try to stay aware of empirical studies that involve a digital focus. I couldn't turn up any online information on this one, so I went in an unusual direction: since it's an online book held at my own library, I decided to look at the actual book. A Bibliophile entry that looks at the actual product it features rather than second hand accounts of it? I know, it makes me feel uncomfortable too. I assure you, it's something we're going to avoid in the future. It looks like a handbook for undergraduate exercises, complete with chapter headings and exercises at the end of sections. And beyond anything else, it's a book to teach how to do empirical research according to typical social sciences standards, rather than questioning or critiquing such methodology. Such a book is useful, but it's not something I have particular interest in--full stop, this time.

Judging by the titles, we've recently gained access to a new set of government commissioned databases; there's a lot of titles like this:Économie sociale et les services de soutien à domicile au Québec: coproduction ou coconstruction? / Christian Jetté et Yves Vaillancourt ; avec la collaboration de Philippe Leclerc.  
which are both e-titles and often about 19 pages long.

Grand thieves & Tomb raiders : how British video games conquered the world / by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene.   London : Aurum Press, 2012.
Well here's a title I wasn't expecting to see in the middle of the economics section. It's a book on the history of the British game industry, from the early days in esoteric and idiosyncratic developers working out of garages and start-ups to the current place they hold on the world stage. A lot of this territory is covered in some detail in Tristan Dovovan's Replay, but the British industry is big enough that it can support a book solely dedicated to it, I think. As the title and cover tell us very, very loudly, the book is devoted very closely to Tomb Raider's early creation with Core Design. There's also a list of the other names you'd expect to see: Rockstar, the people behind the GTA series; lesser known outside of the game industry but still big figures such as Richard Bartle of TinyMUD and Peter Molyneux, of everything from Populous to Fable to Curiosity. I've got a soft spot for the "history of games" type books, and this looks like a good one. Mental note to take it out of the library. I have to say, it's finding books like this that got me to start Bibliophile in the first place.

 Car country : an environmental history / Christopher W. Wells ; foreword by William Cronon.
As someone who was a very, very reluctant car owner and now hasn't driven regularly for at least half a decade, my relationship with the automobile is much more ambivalent than most of my North American bretheren. I think that may put me into a more sympathetic frame of mind for Wells' book. Wells calls the United States in particular "car country" because its landscapes are oriented around personal vehicles so that other forms of transportation are inconvenient at best and nearly impossible at worst. (I wonder where he'd rate air travel--its price excludes many, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult because of the various restrictions set up in the name of safety. And it's arguably not involved with a landscape at all, except at looking at it from a great distance above.) In the book, Wells displays the history of the car and how it became so central in the American economy and way of life. (99% Invisible did a piece on this subject recently, on how  jaywalking was a flashpoint for the battle of pedestrian and automotive ownership of the city street.) There's not much mention here of how the environment is affected by this massive car production; perhaps Wells means it more in the sense that how car-centric we are has shaped how we perceive and construct our environment.

 Virtualities : television, media art, and cyberculture / Margaret Morse. 1998.
I have to admit, I did a double take when I saw the date of this one. Generally, there isn't a lot of call for pre-millenial books regarding cyber-stuff. Being a somewhat older book, I find myself once again to look at the actual digital copy to get a sense of what it's about.  Only I can't seem to get THAT to work, and I don't really care enough to finesse that, to be honest.  So here's what  I gleamed from Google Books. Morse's approach seems different from the typical cyber-rhetoric of the period; rather than indulge in techno-utopianism, she argues that "virtualities" are often used to hide how the public sphere has been diminished by disguising impersonal relations as actually Utopian. Morse wants to consider how we create more subjective and person ways of virtually interacting with machines and strangers. Judging from the table of content, we're looking at digital art, The Internet, and television, which I appreciate--all too commonly, the focus on digital stuff of one type blinds the writer to other technologies and approaches. Granted, everything must be fairly dated, fifteen years later, but there's probably still something worth reading.

I find myself in a bit of a bind at this point. I'm not even half way through the list, but I'm nearly at my set limit of 12 works, a limit I set after working myself into a frenzy in previous massive listings. There, it didn't matter if I stopped before I finished the list, because it was just a random sampling to begin with. But assuming they're going to keep up the UW updates, I need to go through the entire list, or the books will get lost in backlog forever. I think my solution will be do 12 features each week, but go through the whole list, noting the titles worth talking about next week. That'll work until the point where I have so many titles on the backlog that I'm six weeks behind. But we'll do it this way for now. 

Love in the time of algorithms : what technology does to meeting and mating / Dan Slater.   New York : Current, 2013.
It's amazing how popular variations of the "Love in The Time of Cholera" formula have become, even among those very unlikely to have read the book--not that I'm casting any assumptions on Slater's reading habits. The title does a nice job of indicating the title and even the expected audience here. It's a pop book on the effects and history of online dating. Because of the options provided by online dating sites, we've basically got an embarrassment of riches, a never-ending source of potential mates. Slater argues that this larger pool means that we feel more entitled for searching for someone who fits our ideal mate very exactly--no more settling, in other words. And then there's premise of a dating site--can an algorithm be trusted to find compatible matches? Are we okay with quantifying relationships to that extent? And to what extent do the founding bases for these dating sites shape the results they produce? As someone who once dropped out of French Club because he found the idea of going to people and asking them for money daunting and unpleasant, it's probably no surprise that I find the prospect of making a prospective date in person similarly daunting (also problematic that I equate people dating me with charity). But finding an appropriate dating site is tricky too. It's one of those cases where you not only have to acknowledge that there's an electronic gate keeper, but you encourage it--yes, I would like a dating site that keeps out the masses. But not me, thanks. I'm not sure where I'm going with this one. I find the economization of "love," whatever that may mean, fascinating, so I'd probably like this book as a fun sort of read. Incidentally, Amazon suggests several similar books: Laurie Davis' Love at First Click; Amy Webb's Data: A Love Story, Donna Freitas' The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy; Barbara Fredickson's Love 2.0; Marina Adshade's Dollars and Sex. Slater is standing on well-trod ground.

 Liberal Terror / Brad Evans
A title like this one, on the other hand, has a very wide potential mandate. Evans' thesis is a pretty common one these days: "While liberal government and security agencies have responded [to current threats] by advocating a new catastrophic topography of interconnected planetary endangerment, our desire to securitize everything has rendered all things potentially terrifying." And that's the irony of liberalism: the more we seek to secure, the more our imaginaries of threats proliferate. Hmm... That's a very particular definition of liberalism, considering the term can also mean freedom from restriction. Evans explores the issues he feels are associated with this particular brand of "liberal," and how they demand a rationality that undermines claims to universal justice and co-habitation. I have to say, I've never really felt the fear of security thing. It's probably because I don't own enough stuff yet.

I'll keep going through the list, but for now, we'll end here.

Later Days.

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