Category Archives: Non fiction

*** Word by Word by Kory Stamper

Can’t think of a better book for word lovers than Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the memoir of a lexicographer (that’s a writer of dictionaries) for Merriam Webster. She takes us through the silent editors’ office (no phones, no chatter), the delightful duty of Reading and Marking (yes, she is paid to read, 8 hours a day! but that’s mighty active reading, hunting for suitable citations), the enormous task of updating the definitions of mundane words that no reader will likely check (hers was “take”; imagine that), the duties of pronunciation specialists (not her), and the unexpected email campaigns against this word or that. It’s fun and just a little worrisome for the future: now that dictionaries are online, and free, who will write them?

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* The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

Let’s start with the admission that I was bored by the slow pace of The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease, which recounts the way the rubella vaccine was created, and in particular how the human cells that it uses were grown. A more patient reader may more fully appreciate the intrigue: fetus lungs shipped across the Atlantic, babies vaccinated without a hint of proper consent, the illegal transfer of thousands of cells across the country, in a refrigerator strapped to the back seat of a family car, and a lawsuit to boot (about the transfer, not those unimportant consent forms).

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** The Soul of the First Amendment by Floyd Abrams

Written by a passionate lawyer, The Soul of the First Amendment fiercely defends the freedom-of-speech right enshrined in the First Amendment, contrasting it with other approaches in several other Western countries. It’s more a pamphlet than a balanced exegesis of the law, and it’s a little scary, since its main point is that putting any restrictions on the First Amendment would amount to intolerable government censorship. Funny that other countries are somewhat managing to place some restrictions on free speech without breaking democracy. Forcefully argued, but lacking a counter-argument.

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*** Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Dadidowitz

In the spirit of Freakonomics, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are tackles big questions with big data. For instance, few Americans would admit to being racist, but areas of the country with the most racist Google searches also voted for Obama less (adjusting for other factors). Google searches also suggest that the percentage of gay men is fairly uniform in every state, although surveys don’t agree (and who wants to out himself on a survey). And even if domestic abuse claims did not rise much during the last recession (somewhat of a surprise), online searches about abuse did, sadly.

Beyond the titillating examples, the author is careful to state the limits of big data, and in particular the fallacy of the random multi-variable analysis (thank you).

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** How Civility Works by Keith Bybee

Read a lot of philosophy books? Me neither, so How Civility Works was a bit of a riddle. And although I thought the author had some interesting reminders that enforcing civility can be a way to squash any dissent or political disagreement, I am not so sure that I would follow him on the path of sacrificing civility on the altar of free speech…

 

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* Exiled in America by Christopher Dum

Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel is the result of an sociological study of the population of the residential motel, where we meet people down on their luck, addicts, people with mental illnesses, and many sex offenders who cannot find any place to live under laws that prevent them living close to any school or park. It uncovers all kinds of interesting group dynamics — but the way the book is organized makes it quite painful to read. For the first and larger half of the book, the author recounts anecdotes, which are quite clear, even vivid, but then finds the need to explain to us what they mean when we can easily figure it out for ourselves. And also he seems very surprised that the residents of the motel are quite capable of looking after themselves, helping others, and taking best advantage of their limited resources. Why not, indeed? The rest of the book is a list of recommendations, which seem impractical at best. (Yes, the residents could use a nutritionist, but it’s not clear that their problem is that they don’t know about junk food, more that most of them have no way to cook for themselves.) If you can get past the sociology approach and jargon, discovering the daily life at the motel is really interesting.

 

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** The Givers by David Callahan

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age looks at how the super-rich give, or at least the generous super-rich, taking us through the causes they choose to support and the mechanisms they use to give. The main theme, unsurprisingly, is that the super-rich have an outsized influence, because of the vast sums they control. But more insidiously, the super-rich often give fortunes to self-serving causes such as their alma maters or art concerns that benefit mostly other rich or near-rich people — and especially to political causes that are treated generously by the US tax code but don’t exactly serve the downtrodden. Might be worth some attention from the US Congress, were it known untangled in other concerns at this time.

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