Book Review: More Information Than You Require

October 14, 2008

More Information Than You Require

By John Hodgman

Published October 21, 2008

Dutton Adult

368 pp.

ISBN 0-525-95034-9

Reviewed October 14, 2008

If you only know John Hodgman as the perennially outclassed PC of Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads, you are missing so much of who he is. If your knowledge extends to his recurring role as resident expert of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” you’re still only scratching the surface. And if you’ve gotten to his 2005 faux almanac “The Areas of My Expertise,” you know he captures the title of the most oddly brilliant writer in literature today.

And if you haven’t gotten to his new book “More Information Than You Require,” shame on you. Once again, Hodgman has written a book filled with made-up facts on subjects ranging from gambling to presidential elections to how he plans to spend his enormous wealth. The book is a direct sequel to “The Areas of My Expertise” in every way: it begins exactly where that book left off (page 237), has the same format of lists/predictions/hoboes and is once again a book you can’t read in public because everyone stares at you for laughing so hard.

The closest equivalents to Hodgman’s fiction-masquerading-as-truth style are The Daily Show’s “America: The Book” and Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You!),” but his books avoid being limited to one area of study. His topics oscillate between counting how many United States presidents have had hooks for hands (eight), the best way to cook an owl (goat sacrifice is involved) and racing hermit crabs for money (the winning strategy is to use trained falcons against the competition).

In the hands of a lesser author these facts would fall apart into babble, but Hodgman – a Yale graduate and professional literary agent – has a rare gift for holding it all together. He admits at the beginning that every single fact in the book is one he made up himself, and then goes on to state each one in a matter-of-fact tone, even supplementing them with footnotes that call back to facts even more patently absurd.

The footnotes help hold his structure together, as does the addition of a “Today in History” feature where every page has an additional fact about what happened during that day. These facts are more random than the rest of the book, though it does contain an interesting narrative on raining teeth and dead frogs on two major American cities back in 1981.

The overlay of multiple facts in “More Information” also means that it has endless potential for re-reading, as – for example – you’ve likely been so caught up in learning that you cannot eat oysters in months that lack the letter “R” (their screaming months) you missed the note that Amelia Earhart and Quetzalcoatl sit on the blood thrones and will soon judge us all.

Special mention goes to Hodgman’s section on the mysterious world of the mole-men, a follow-up to his previous anthropological study of hoboes (and the 700 accompanying hobo names that inspired the illustrations of e-hobo.com). It’s the most cohesive of the sections, building a narrative that reveals how the mole-men not only collaborated with Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, but they also access the surface world through Paris catacombs, ride a variety of hideous steeds such as dirt pumas and really like doing it “molely-style.”

And of course, the book contains 700 mole-man names sure to inspire another illustrative website. I eagerly await seeing artistic renditions of names such as Drew Danglemites, Tremont Crawsalong and Nick Nolte.

It’s prudent to start with “Expertise” (particularly to follow footnotes referring back to the first book) but doing so isn’t essential to enjoying “More Information.” In fact, nothing is essential to enjoying the book beyond simply opening it. It’s as Hodgman has been writing down all the random late-night conversations you’ve ever had thanks to drugs or boredom or sleep deprivation, and compiled them into one whole text – except he’s been far cleverer with it than you could ever hope to be.

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Book Review: Human Goodness

October 14, 2008

Human Goodness

By Yi-Fu Tuan

Published March 25, 2008

University of Wisconsin Press

244 pp.

ISBN 0-299-22670-0

Reviewed October 13, 2008

In both journalism and fiction writing, there’s a list of words experienced writers warn against using and “good” is usually at the top. It’s a word that seems weak and overly broad, applicable to any situation or object that finds any approval. Additionally, it’s an unspecific word that can be substituted easily: high-quality, superior, excellent, noble, worthy and virtuous are only a few of the dozens of options in any basic thesaurus.

But when “good” disappears under a wash of synonyms, the core meaning of the word tends to be obscured – and it’s that meaning Yi-Fu Tuan explores in the simply titled volume “Human Goodness.” Refreshingly, it’s not a solicitation to undertake charity or a lamentation on how much of the world has abandoned the path of rightness, but rather a well-researched meditation on what a good act means and its effect on the surrounding world.

Tuan, in exploring the topic of what goodness is, begins by splitting the idea into the variety of ways it takes form. Generosity and basic decency are the most practical ones, but it also becomes visible in the observation of manners, an indifference to pride and self-image in favor of other topics, and showing moral courage in the face of difficult circumstances. These are not new concepts, but Tuan reinforces them with an impressive depth of examples, ranging from real-life sightings of kindness to literary references ranging from Charles Darwin to George Orwell.

Part of what makes Tuan’s study of goodness so compelling is the fresh eyes he seems to have for his subject, particularly for a man who was 75 at the time of writing. Again, he avoids bemoaning how it was “back in the day,” but has an almost childlike fascination with the performance of good acts he observes in his daily life. A man trudges two miles in the snow of Minnesota, periodically stopping to free stalled cars; a fisherman pushes him on a bike through a swamp and disappears once the journey is complete; a student offers him a shoulder to rest his head on during a travel.

Following these everyday examples Tuan delves into history, providing character studies of six individuals he considers having lived truly good lives: Confucius, Socrates, Mozart, John Keats, Albert Schweitzer and Simone Weil. Each of these individuals, he argues, exemplified the traits of being a good person in areas ranging from their role as teachers, moral philosophers, crafters of beauty and self-appointed duty to others. His research is strengthened here as well by personal vignettes: Keats caring for his deathly ill mother, Weil offering free lessons to laborers, Mozart writing love letters to his wife.

But even after showing these exemplars “Human Goodness” doesn’t suggest that the reader spend their entire lives trying to match them in terms of output and quality. Tuan’s argument goes more to illustrating that good actions are far more captivating than we would expect, particularly in a world that is so often gripped by negativity. His viewpoint of goodness is almost an aesthetic one, treating it as if it were to be placed on a pedestal for multiple interpretations.

And like art, regardless of what criteria you use to measure them, Tuan argues that acts of good deserve to be appreciated for what they bring to the world, and it’s that genial tone that makes “Human Goodness” such an encouraging work of philosophy. Maybe the word “good” can’t escape its technical weakness, but Tuan’s scholarship shows it retains a significance that far outweighs that aspect.


Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

October 6, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell

Published October 7, 2008

Riverhead Books

254 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48999-0

Reviewed October 5, 2008

Sarah Vowell is the sort of person you desperately wish taught your high school American history class: smarter than anyone else in the room, a quirky sense of humor, full of random trivia and a genuine enthusiasm for her topic. Her 2005 effort “Assassination Vacation” may be one of the best books of this decade, looking at the macabre side of our executive branch with the voice of a skeptical fangirl.

Now, with her latest title “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell has graduated from being the ideal high school teacher to the ideal college professor. It’s a more professional work than her earlier titles, more akin to an academic essay than a road trip diary, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best recent books on pre-Founding Fathers America.

The “wordy shipmates” in question are the Puritans, most particularly a section which set sail from England in 1630 to settle in what would eventually become Boston. Vowell looks beyond the stereotype, viewing them as an optimistic, highly literate people who gave America more than a reputation for sexual repression. Their desire to write and express thought would give precedent for the First Amendment, and their leader John Winthrop would advocate “a city upon a hill” and lay the groundwork for America’s centuries of self-importance.

Winthrop, the political head of the settlement, is one of the main characters Vowell plays along with: he is a compassionate authoritarian who ordered a man’s ears cut off, but postponed his exile until the harsh winter ended. He tried to keep his colony independent without agitating the English monarchy, but found himself up against personalities equally as forceful. On one hand was Roger Williams, a rabble-rouser who advocated separation of church and state to protect the church and whom Vowell sees as a perfect talk-show host in modern times. On the other was Anne Hutchinson, who challenged religious order and would have won all debates if she could only shut up for the closing statement.

Vowell’s books have been moving from essay collections to more cohesive history texts, and “The Wordy Shipmates” reflects this shift in style. There are no chapters or major separations between sections, and it focuses chiefly on analyzing documents such as Winthrop’s journals and Williams’ letters. It has the feel of a masters’ thesis, which is not a condemnation – Kurt Vonnegut earned a master’s in anthropology for “Cat’s Cradle” after all – but after the ambling pace of “Assassination Vacation” it’s certainly a shift to see Vowell spend most of her time in the library.

The literary fascination of the Puritans may have rubbed off a little too heavily on Vowell, but a more formal structure isn’t enough to silence her droll tone: she can recall enacting the fires of hell at Bible camp with puppets and flashlights and say how genuinely excited she was about a sitcom depicting the harsh winters Pilgrims had to endure. Fans of “Assassination Vacation” will be pleased to see she continues touring with her sister and niece, dragging them to Pilgrim reenactment villages and a museum neighboring an Indian casino.

And these examples get to the core of what makes Vowell’s writing such a treat: they’re accessible in a way no other history writer is. She weaves mass media into these historical actions, comparing the founding of Massachusetts to a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Winthrop’s feud with his deputy governor to a Nancy Drew mystery. Her analogies aren’t there to distract a reader but draw them in further, doing exactly what a teacher should do: make you understand the argument.

One passage in particular showcases her style, able to make a thesis statement in one sentence and convert it to pop culture in the next: “They personify what would become the fundamental conflict of American life – between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness. At his city-on-a-hill best, Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise.”

It’s passages like that one that reaffirm Vowell’s position as the maven of American history, and that keep “The Wordy Shipmates” an accessible and amusing read. The more formal structure and occasionally thick text may offset fans of “Assassination Vacation,” but Vowell keeps it flowing with her trademark wit and a cast interesting enough to change anyone’s definition of “puritan.”