Saturday, April 25, 2009

Others bite the dust

Two more books I didn't finish:

I was actually looking for Nugent's American Nerd but it was checked out. The shelf did have David Anderegg's Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (2007) which I flipped through and figured it might be an OK substitute. Then while standing in the aisle I noticed on the cover after the author's name is "PhD" which can't be a good sign. (In fact in the book he constantly reminds us of his degree and his clinical practice - an unappealing mix of insecurity and marketing aggression.) The jacket bio lists as one of his main accomplishments that "he has been quoted as an expert" by several magazines. Again this should have been setting off screaming Spidey-sense. As you might expect Anderegg writes in a glib, soundbite style that tries to be light but also serious - the kind of thing that tosses off flat jokes and then unleashes supposedly dire statistics and studies.

The book isn't really about nerds or geeks. Anderegg says he wants to see how "kids" learn the stereotype so that it can be combated. The best I can determine is that he thinks America's low rankings in math and hard science education is because those subjects have been determined to be the domain of the nerd/geek, people view nerds/geeks in a negative way and therefore few kids study math & science. Maybe he makes a more convincing argument later in the book but I doubt it. He's a bit unclear about all these "kids" he works with. What ages and what does he do? In general usage "kids" seems to encompass anything from about a one-year-old up to early 20s (at the college where I work the employees frequently call the students kids). Anderegg also uncritically assumes that a stereotype is a negative thing - perhaps not dead wrong but most people pushing a change also are pushing stereotypes, just ones that they consider positive.

A bit more substantial is John Thorne's Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots (1996). Thorne is generally considered to be one of the country's best food writers and indeed based on this he's not a bad writer. It's just that what he's writing about is not only not what I expected but not anything worth my effort; others obviously feel differently. The book is a collection of essays where he discusses a dish or other food topic and then a recipe or way to prepare it. So far so good except that it opens with a long (loooong) bit about houses where he's lived or visited and other parts go into detail about his Maine neighbors, Maine habits, Maine architecture, Maine highways. This is so far from anything remotely interesting to me that I'd literally rather read the dictionary.

Even the food parts tend to be overkill. For one thing Thorne is that type of person who's pushed connoisseurship to an irritating extreme - one of the first pieces goes into detail about numerous types of potatoes, where he found them and then concludes with four-page description of how to fry them. Now I'm geeky enough that in theory this should be worthwhile but really it ends up as just a list of useless variety names and gosh nobody at all cares what farm he buys his potatoes. And four pages on frying isn't an triumph of detailed writing but simply a failure to understand what's important.

Or for instance his stance on barbeque is all detail about the meat being the most important part, not the sauce, but as with so much else Thorne comes dangerously close to preaching the One True Way. He's not completely wrong but it's a kind of arrogance typical of many foodies who claim to have found the real path and that certain types of food shouldn't be done certain ways. But to paraphrase the Duke, "If it tastes good, it is good."