Monthly book roundup – November

Books finished in November:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson.

Recommended. Everything bad is good for you is something as unorthodox as a passionate argument about the cognitive benefits of popular culture. Johnson claims that popular culture today is so challenging and stimulating that we get heavy mental exercise by consuming it. Much of the book focuses on games, which is where I believe Johnson has the strongest case: Popular video games demand thinking and well thought strategies and plans, chores sometimes have to be performed, gratification is delayed, patience is required. Some lament how games are not like books, but like Johnson, says, the novelistic parts of games are their least interesting aspects. In games the content is not the primary benefit, but rather the mental exercise they provide. Reward and exploration are also essential parts: Players have to probe the game, explain it, figure out its rules and find its weak spots. To put it another way, they have to think about the system and what are the limits of the simulation. In this aspect – that ambiguity is essential – video games are different from board games and other traditional games. This is a highly entertaining account of games, and one that concurs very well with my own experience.

Johnson also defends other parts of popular culture, such as television shows and films, that contain many more subplots and where action is expressed with much more subtlety than in previous times. Even reality shows and tv debates get a positive rap, since they require strategy and emotional intelligence and adaption as rule change, in the case of the former, and we are good at judging people by face. To some extent all this seems right, but the question is how much of popular culture it holds for. Though it must be said that at least in the case of tv shows, Johnson argues at length that it is not only niche high brow shows that now have a bigger market to cater to, but that also middle or low brow culture have been lifted.

Johnson sees in all this an explanation of the Flynn effect, i.e. the sustained increase in measured intelligence test scores in many countries throughout most of the 20th century. That is a fascinating thought, but one that would demand more large-scale evidence than hitherto provided to be accepted. Hopefully some researchers out there are on the case.

Naked, by David Sedaris. Very funny.

Reagan In His Own Voice. Ronald Reagan’s daily radio broadcasts from the late 1975-79. In 1976 Reagan launched a failed bid to become the Republican party’s presidential candidate (against the incumbent Gerald Ford). His small radio speeches were probably a way to continue to be in the public sphere. The editors claimed that Reagan wrote most of the material himself. That is impressive if true, although he did not seem to have a formal job until he became president in 1981. Some of the addresses seem quite idiosyncratic, so that supports the claim. I disagree with many of the views expressed, but it is too bad that politicians today seem to be less free to express their personal views, with political communication having become wholly professionalized.

Ratings and additional books are in the library.

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