Books I Could Not Finish

It feels so good to give up. -- Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth is Funny

Since I've been posting reviews of books I've read in the past few years, it seems only fair to discuss the books I tried to read and failed. Here are those failures.




Understanding Media

Marshall McLuhan
Used hardcover
25 January - 23 August 2000

It took about seven months of sporadic reading, during which I made it to page 130 (out of 359), before I finally put this aside for good. McLuhan might have had some insight, but he did not know how to communicate it coherently. He'd begin a topic, wander away from it, throw in a gratuitous reference to Shakespeare or Joyce or Greek myth, add some vast generalizations, and then let his argument peter out completely. The chapters aren't coherent arguments, they're collages of whatever tangential material he had at hand.

Perhaps I just don't understand McLuhan. For example, his famous notion of "hot" and "cool" media seems to be completely arbitrary. In one sentence (p. 23) he refers to radio as "hot", that is, conveying a lot of data, while telephone is "cool", requiring the listener to fill in the blanks, as it were. But they're both audio-only media; the sole difference is how they're employed. By this definition, how can television be considered "cool"? Is a telephone held up to a radio "hot" or "cool"? What about a telephone conversation replayed on a radio show? Or consider television: it requires no participation, no act of imagination on the part of the viewer. It conveys a huge amount of data to two different senses. How is that "cool"?

I finally lost all patience with the book at page 125, in a chapter on housing. In the middle of the chapter, McLuhan states

Men live in round houses until they become sedentary and specialized in their work organization. Anthropologists have often noted this change from round to square [dwellings] without knowing its cause. The media analyst can help the anthropologist in this matter...

...A triangle follows lines of force, this being the most economical way of anchoring a vertical object. A square moves beyond such kinetic pressures to enclose visual space's relations, while depending upon diagonal anchors. This separation of the visual from direct tactile and kinetic pressure, and its translation into new dwelling spaces, occurs only when men have learned to practice specialization of their senses, and fragmentation of their work skills.


As any architect would know, round dwellings are ideal for nomadic people, as they are easier to set up and transport, and also enclose the greatest amount of space with a minimum of material. Take a look at a yurt, for example; its round shape allows its wall to be self-reinforcing. However, round dwellings have the drawback that their walls are curved, which leads to wasted space. For a permanent dwelling, a rectangular shape maximizes the amount of usable space. Media, and fragmented work skills, aren't really a consideration. Otherwise, wouldn't all South Sea Islanders have lived in square dwellings? Some of them divided their labor, after all. As did native Americans, some of whom were settled, others nomadic.

After a while I got tired of McLuhan's unsupported handwaving, and his PostModernism Lite. His notions were neither coherent, nor did they even seem consistent.

A New Kind of Science

Stephen Wolfram
Library book
June 6 - 20 (roughly) 2003

Wolfram's thesis is that the majority of physical processes can be modeled by cellular automata whose behavior can only be determined by actually running the automata. Hence, most of the universe's physical systems can't be reduced to a simple set of equations.

At least, that's what I gathered from what I managed to get through of this 1,000+ page book. It's quite the odd duck: too detailed and long for the casual reader, but overlong and not detailed enough for those who understand the subject. I fell into the latter camp. I managed to make it through about 250 pages, though it took many tries. Twenty pages was about the most I could read at a time before falling asleep. The book proved to be an effective soporific, which is a pity. Wolfram's ideas are interesting, though not a breakthrough insight. If he provided a test for determining whether a system is deterministic but not predictable then there's value in the book. Unfortunately, I didn't get far enough to find out. Perhaps I'll return to it someday when I need more sleep.


Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand
Used paperback
date unknown

Not much to tell here. I tried reading this sometime back around 1990, but found that it was not only really long, it was also really dull. Rand's ideas weren't sparkling gems that set my world afire; they read like adolescent sociopolitical wish-fulfillment.

At the end of the second part, I closed the book, looked around at my friends in a room in Worcester, Massachusetts, and asked them if anyone had read the book. One said yes. I asked "Does it end like I think it's going to end?". The reply was another yes. At that, I put the book away and have never returned to it. I had no need to ask any more questions about it. And I had no need to read three hundred or so more pages of Rand's polemics.

The Probability Broach

L. Neil Smith
Library book
25-27 March 2002

I probably could have finished this book if I'd tried -- or cared -- but after getting through a hundred pages, I couldn't take any more. The plot follows Edward "Win" Bear (feel free to groan), a police lieutenant who falls through a dimensional breach into an alternate U.S.A. that embraces libertarian principles. That could make for an interesting story, but the author (an active and vocal libertarian) stacks the deck so heavily in favor of this New World that reading about it exercises the reader's patience. I'm still unsure precisely how the assassination of George Washington led two centuries later to better medical technology, economic fusion power, and full acceptance as citizens granted to chimpanzees and gorillas. Nor do I quite follow how two centuries worth of diverging history also led to the abolition of racism and greed, avoided any problems between European settlers of North American and people who already lived there, and removed any bias humans might harbor against different species.

It's easy to make a libertarian world look like utopia, but who's that supposed to convince? Fictional utopias are a dime a dozen. Show me a libertarian world that's struggling with its problems, and I'll show you a more interesting and honest novel.

Don't forget to look at the required, recommended and honorable mention reading lists.

Last updated 27 June 2003
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons