Friday, 22 January 2016

How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson


Tonight (by the time this gets posted, it will be yesterday), I go to my book club, where this was our choice this month. I don't mind reading non-fiction, although I am not entirely sure what we will be talking about. This book was entertaining, not as deep as The Ghost Map, and...neat?

In his favour, Johnson's writing style is as accomplished as ever. He's an engaging writer of popular history, and the way he writes is unobtrusive. In this book, he looks at "six innovations that made the Modern World," although truthfully, what he's looking at is a theory of innovation that depends not on the lone genius, but on the necessary preconditions for certain discoveries, and the ways in which their impacts are broader and unexpected, in ways both good and bad. 

I'm trying to remember what the six are, and it may not be the greatest sign for how well this book will wear that I'm not sure I remember all six, even though I finished it less than a week ago. Let's see. There's...Glass. Sound. Light. Cold. And...hmmm.  And...nope. Gone. I'll have to look them up.

Clean and Time! There we go. 

It's sort of a strange way of dividing it, one obviously done to tie in with discrete episodes of television, as it's less a single innovation than a constellation of innovations around a general topic. That's harder to put in a blurb, though. 

The thing is, this book is just chock full of interesting little facts and insights. When he looks at cold and ends up by tying the growth of cities in hot areas to air conditioning, I am fascinated. There are tons of interesting linkages here, ways of looking at the effects of technologies that I had not thought of.

And yet, it remains a bit scattered. Unlike The Ghost Map, where he was bringing a really great sense of making nuance accessible, in this book it seems a little more surface. It would be interesting to compare this to the TV show, because writing is able to go into ideas in depth that an hour long show just is not going to be able to. And while he is able to bring some depth to the writing, it doesn't amount to a lot more than a ton of admittedly fascinating anecdotes.

But if that's all we get, fascinating anecdotes are perhaps enough. As is the idea that great inventions are far more than a moment of inspiration by one lone inventor. The problem is just sort of this...I'm about two thirds of the way through the normal length of a review, and I've run out of things to say. I think everything from this point would be a reiteration of "boy, there sure are some good tales in this book!" 

So maybe I'll leave it there, a slightly shorter review, but not really a negative one. Just not a hugely enthusiastic one either.

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