Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

When it comes to the digital frontier and those "thinkers" who inhabit it, they all want to know how to get their idea noticed.  To be creator of a viral video, article, meme, or whatever else, is a badge of honor in the information age.  Jonah Berger claims in his book, Contagious, to have decoded the patterns and elements of what makes something viral.  He's got them all listed out, but is it convincing?

Answer: maybe.  Contagious does do more than other books with a similar theme, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point, by going beyond how something becomes viral to why something becomes viral.  Having dabbled with social media and trying to get an idea to take off (I do run an online book club after all), I have been as befuddled as many others as to why some posts are popular and others are duds.  Furthermore, there is a general fascination with viral content online.  (Sites like The Daily Beast track and list the most viral videos each week).  Jonah Berger's attempt to give definitive reasons for why something becomes viral is very ambitious, but I'm not particularly convinced he found any secret sauce.

Berger relies a lot on social research, which is difficult to get right and burdened with innumerable variables.  The book does a nice job of setting up each of his principles with a story and then provides evidence to support Berger's theories.  It's interesting enough to read and ponder, after all he may be right, but there was nothing in the book which led me to any kind of "Aha!" moment.  It was all pretty standard in its approach.

One nice thing about Berger's book is that it highlights very ordinary people who were able to create something, even if it was a video about preparing corn, that found an incredibly large audience.  It's a great reminder how small our world can really be.  It also illustrates how the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways.  There are internet celebrities, even if it was temporary, who gained exposure and attention that many corporations are willing to pay millions for.  We live in a fascinating age.

Contagious is readable, even enjoyable, but I didn't find anything in it that would give someone a perfect recipe for creating viral content.  In my mind, sometimes people just get lucky.  In a way, a little mystery is fun because then you truly never know if you'll become an internet celebrity. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October is one of my favorite films of all time.  It seemed reasonable that I would eventually read the source material.  Having never read a Tom Clancy book, I still had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.  Thankfully, the book was entertaining, although lacking focus at times, and well worth the read.

One thing to keep in mind while reading a Tom Clancy book is that military jargon is to his books what romance is to young adult books.  It's a vital and integral part of the story; it's what makes the book a Tom Clancy book, which, in a way, has become a genre unto itself.  Clancy wants to immerse his reader in a world of CIA and KGB spies, Admirals and Generals, and Cold War tactics.  For the most part, it works quite well.  I am fascinated by the Cold War, and the book's focus on the distrust and military baiting back and forth between the United States and Soviet Union were especially entertaining.  Clancy's theoretical situation of a defecting Soviet submarine captain and his officers plays out extremely well.  The mystery, the hunt for the Red October, is why the story is so compelling; Clancy's playing off of the general Cold War mood and tension is an added bonus.

Having said that, the book does lose some of its focus as it attempts to bite off more than it can chew.  There is a sub-plot with a Senator, his aid, and KGB infiltration, which does very little to forward the story.  It was an unnecessary sidebar and shows a little too much eagerness on Clancy’s part to immerse his readers in the Cold War environment too far above the elbows.   

Clancy uses The Hunt for Red October to introduce his audience to Jack Ryan, who will become his most well-known fictional character.  I was somewhat surprised at how little Ryan is involved during the middle of the book.  He plays a huge role at the beginning and a somewhat ancillary role at the end, but his involvement is almost totally non-existent during the story's rising action.  He's a strong enough character and acts as a good reflection for readers since he's more of a layman and fish out of water (pun unintended) than the other characters in the book.  True, he's a part of the CIA but only as an analyst.  He, like any one of us, feels appropriately terrified to be on a submarine, even navigating it, and simply wants the nightmare to end.  He's a likeable character, especially as a family man wanting to get home before Christmas, and has a sufficient introduction in Red October

I very much enjoyed The Hunt for Red October.  About half-way through the book I wasn't sure if I would ever go back to the Clancy well; however, now that I've read Red October, I could see myself returning to read another of Ryan's adventures.  There are aspects of the book which I waded through rather than enjoyed, such as the military jargon, but, at least in Red October, it was off-set enough by characters I liked and tensions I wanted to see resolved. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris
Reflections: The Rising Tide
Reflections: Gods and Generals

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mooncalf: Inspirations and Recollections

On December 2, 2013, I posted my review of Linda L. Zern's Mooncalf.  It was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I was happy to help the author put together this short video.  Linda L. Zern shares some thoughts on how her elementary school became a large inspiration for Mooncalf and recollects some of her memories from that school.

Finally, the author offers some advice to her children and grandchildren and by extension to all of us.  Mooncalf is still one of the finest books I've read, and I highly recommend it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Personal growth and development books always strive to be their own type of scripture.  Normally there is some kind of comment from the author at the beginning of their book which advises the readers they need to make a consistent study of the book and return to it again and again.  I've never done this.  I'm not sure how many people do.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is superior to other personal growth books, but it still falls into the same traps and tropes, and I won't be returning to it again and again as Mr. Covey would have liked.

The most unique aspect of 7 Habits is that it pulls so heavily from the religious faith of its author.  As a Latter-day Saint, it wasn't difficult to identify the doctrinal influences which were informing Stephen R. Covey's conclusions.  In fact, sometimes the book acts as a barely veiled reiteration of Latter-day Saint doctrine.  I was impressed by this because I know how much Latter-day Saint doctrine has to offer and how valuable it can be in guiding a life.  Mr. Covey is certainly not coy about his beliefs, and I respect him for that.

What this focus on belief leads to is a book that is centered mostly on principle and values rather than techniques and tricks.  I enjoyed this aspect of the book the most.  I believe in a certain moral ecology and Mr. Covey posits his theories of human behavior and relationships within that kind of a framework.  I found his advice, therefore, much more salient and meaningful than I would have otherwise.  It's a viewpoint not widely shared today, but I nonetheless believe it's true.

The problem with 7 Habits is the same as most other personal growth books.  It's bloated and too long.  If the book had been 200 pages I think it could have been as close to perfect as a personal development book can get; however, weighing in at 319 pages, the book becomes bogged down in its own love for lists, paradigms, and diagrams.  A reader simply won't remember much of it.  This is why authors of these types of books encourage their readers to return to a study of their words again and again, but I'm just not going to do that.  In consequence, the book loses some of its value as it attempts to provide more and more of it by filling its pages with insights, theories, and methods.

I enjoyed 7 Habits for what it is.  It's one of the better personal development books, and a staple of the genre.  It has been read by millions of people, and it does deserve a wide audience.  Yet, in the end, it feels a lot like a lot of the other personal development books, and I've never been much of a fan of those kinds of books.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Wisdom of Teams
Reflections: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections: Their Eyes Were Watching God

For the most part, I have very positive feelings toward Southern Literature.  Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mooncalf are some of my absolute favorites.  When I began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God I assumed it would be similar to other Southern Literature books like To Kill a Mockingbird, which focuses on larger social issues like racism and justice.  However, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a very different book with a very familiar setting and tone.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is about Janie Crawford.  She is a fully realized, complicated, and human character.  She is one of the better characters I have come across in some time.  Throughout the book's pages, there is a genuine story arc for Janie.  She progresses, has flaws, strengths, and is a different person at the end of the book than from who she was at the beginning of the book.  When so many characters in other books are so flat, Janie Crawford is a fine example of a fine fictional character.

In addition to Janie, Their Eyes Were Watching God is filled with memorable and fully realized characters.  Although the secondary characters don't have the same kind of story arc that Janie does, a reader would find it difficult to identify any character in the book which does not serve a valuable purpose.  Tea Cake, for example, is an exceptionally written character.  Hurston forces the reader to feel the uncertainty and doubt that Janie does.  For a short time in the book, the reader is not entirely sure of Tea Cake's motives nor his loyalties.  It was the best of mysteries, if it can be called that, which once answered, is fulfilling and heartbreaking when taken into context with the end of the book.

The one significant flaw I think the book does have is its inconsistency of themes, namely that of God and his role in our lives.  The book dances around the question, but never fully embraces it or examines it.  It's a passing thought, which is all the more ironic since the name of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, suggests a deeper examination of the question.  The reader won't find that examination here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a beautifully written and deeply saddening story.  From a character study perspective, it's superb.  I consider it unique among the Southern Literature books I have read because it doesn't focus on the themes and social issues one would expect.  Rather, it focuses on one woman, who she is and who she wants to be.  I enjoyed reading about Janie Crawford, and Zora Neale Hurston deserves the credit she has received for creating such a vibrant and real character.

Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Reflections: Mooncalf
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown