Over the past few days I have had some work, and also been allowed some time off for the US celebration of Labor Day. While I did plenty of other things, I was most successful at finishing a number of books I have been either devouring or slogging through piecemeal over the past few months.
The first book, which read extremely fast for being a doorstopper in physical hardcover volume, was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is full of details that you only catch if you are an inveterate history, scifi, and language geek such as myself. Neal Stephenson and co-author Nicole Galland. The overall tone is upbeat and almost cheery throughout, even when you know that something dire is about to happen. The book is written in a very self-aware multi-threaded style, and the authors use everything from jotted memos to skaldic verse to convey a surprisingly coherent narrative. I would enjoy reading a follow-up volume if they do choose to continue the collaborative project. Stephenson and Galland, I did not know until reading a review of the book, had previously worked together on the Mongoliad hypertextual multimedia project.
The next book that I finished was Markman Ellis’ The Coffee-house, a History, which I first began to read last year as part of the research for my MA capstone project. The book was engaging, and covered an extensive range of primarily English history, seen through the lens of the social and economic roles of coffee and coffeehouses in both practical and more esoteric cultural terms. Ellis’ coverage of the twentieth century veers into a very different sort of tone, but still conveys a great deal of interesting information. Apparently before Starbucks, the British experienced a sort of non-centralized “franchise” coffeehouse phenomenon that ran alongside and interacted with the Mod period of the Avengers and the Swinging Sixties. But the majority of the book covers the era of the Enlightenment and Early Modern period, with figures any historian or even popular history reader will readily recognize.
Additionally I finished Addiction by Design, as I mentioned earlier. I still think that in many ways that has been one of the more informative works I have read in a while, as it gives insight into the industrial scale of emotional manipulation. The gambling industry more or less seems to have heard secondhand accounts of the worst science folklore of Skinner boxes and said “hold my beer…” But in other ways it touches quite strongly on the larger underlying social and psychological roots of addiction, habituation, and how risk-taking and seemingly wasting time and losing control can somehow satisfy the needs of restless people in broken communities for control over other areas of their life.
Not on the list of completed books, but I began reading Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, which is a very well-written overview of the Taiping Revolution/Revolt/Rebellion that ran almost concurrent with the US Civil War. It is an absolutely fascinating look into Chinese civilization at a crossroads, well before the true dissolution of the Qing dynasty, but very much a vast, seething mass of humans with a few noteworthy figures suddenly slamming into the pressure cooking confines of expanding Western imperialism (in a very literal sense, not the modern intellectual catch-all the term has become.) The Taiping as a cultural movement are themselves a fascinating group – part cult that would have almost fit in with the Second Great Awakening in the US, part very practical sociopolitical revolutionary party bent on taking China back from Manchu domination. I look forward to reading further into the book, which complements books on the Opium Wars and on general Chinese history that I have previously read.