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The Areas of My Expertise 174

Posted by samzenpus
from the know-it-all dept.
Hemos writes "Most of the books sent to Slashdot for review have words like "Java", "hacks", or "802.11b" in the title, but occasionally an odd general book arrives after a publicist hits the wrong button on the keyboard. At first, I thought that John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise , was a mistake, but now I'm not sure. Because this is Slashdot, I'll spend the rest of the review wondering whether the Internet is really changing jokes, humor in general, and even all narrative form. But before that, I can tell you now that there's something sly, odd, and very funny about the book even though it is little more than a disconnected collection of lists and details. It's a coredump from a mind filled with 700 names of Hobos, the ways to use a ferret to rob a bank, the secret to winning every fight (use henchmen!), and the first draft of T.R. Roosevelt's famous command: speak softly and pierce their eyes with a golden hook." Read on for Peter Wayner's review.
The Areas of My Expertise
author John Hodgman
pages 230
publisher
rating 8
reviewer Peter Wayner
ISBN
summary


Let me help the curiosity of the general reader before I get to the meat of the review where I reveal enough Internet-releated theories to satisfy the nasty trolls who like to wonder why Slashdot is wasting valuable bits on silly topic. As John Hodgeman is fond of promising on his book's cover: "THE ANSWER IS PROVIDED".

The book is said to be a relatively complete collection of all of the important expertise in the mind of John Hodgeman, the author referred to on the cover as "A PROFESSIONAL WRITER." There's one section that contains the "700 Hobo names you requested." ("Irontrousers the Strong", "Fleastick" are 55 and 79). Another includes random crap about the 50 states. The sections are all very silly and the humor emerges from a form of metaphysical misdirection. I still chuckle when I think about the list of jokes that "have never produced laughter." The jokes really aren't funny, but there's something insane in their very deliberate and plodding failure.

The book can be sampled like a box of chocolates. I tried to read it through directly to see if any grand arc emerged, but my mind couldn't extract any great signal from the cultural noise. For all I know, he wrote each bit on an index card and then shuffled the cards before typesetting the book. The gags are all about the randomness of the wrong information cluttering his minds and, to a large extent, the texture of the words.

Long ago, an editor would have thrown this guy out on his ear for even suggesting that 230 some pages of chuckles would be worthy of getting people together for a book publication party. I don't think the editor or the publisher let those worries get in the way.

Which brings us to the answer I owe you about why this is a post- internet book. As the non-funny "unified theory of the web" in Small Pieces Loosely Joined pointed out, the web is made up by many small pieces of information arranges with hyperlinks that join them, loosely if you will. Well, that's this book. Random pieces of crap, given an additional shuffle to make it seem all the more random. It's all very loosely joined.

Long ago, professional writers like John Hodgman included narrative arcs and well-wrought plotlines with their books. Perhaps we don't need them any more. Maybe the Internet has changed our brain and made us happy to graze from the bar without the need of a sitdown meal. To put on my PROFESSIONAL POSTER hat, I think that the Internet has made us accustomed to getting our stuff in loosely joined pieces.

In fact it's worse than that. Most bloggers write complete paragraphs, but many parts of the book are just a collection of tiny bits that don't even qualify as full paragraphs. Many of the entries are just lists and many of the items in these lists aren't even complete sentences. This modern approach to writing is everywhere. Even the old dead-tree-based print media is producing magazines filled with so-called stories that are nothing more than lists of cool things to do, watch, or eat. The high-toned magazines may even have two or three sentences per list item--enough, I guess, to qualify as a paragraph, but most are nothing more than lists.

Some folks seem to feel that this fragmented, attention-deficit- whatever life is a good thing. Steven Johnson, for instance, argues in his book that the jumpy plots made of many short scenes are evidence of an expanding intellect. Modern TV seems almost unwatchable to me. But I also find old Starsky and Hutch episodes to be terribly plodding. Won't they just get to the point and catch the killers? But, back then, the journey was 9/10ths of the fun. The point wasn't really the point.

But maybe I'm just making too much of it. Plenty of comedy has always been filled with short pieces. Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes , for instance, was broken into a number of very short bits, although there really were a few threads woven throughout the book. Absurdist comedy like Monty Python's Flying Circus was just a collection of wacky riffs, but they did try to come up with clever and even more absurdist segueways to carry the viewer from scene to scene. It was not usual to have a bunch of guys walk into the frame of a sketch and carry one or more of the characters off and into the frame of another set.

At this point, I sort of feel that I need to add what PROFESSIONAL WRITERS call a "kicker", some sort of question or twist that connects us with the top of the piece and gives the reader a sense of closure. They're hard to find and even harder to craft. Ones that are even slightly funny or insightful can get you promoted. But, given the spirit of the book, I feel inclined to invoke the spirit of a hobo, slack a bit, and steal the ending from the book itself. (I can do this without spoiling the book for you!) As Hodgman writes when he comes to the end of the deck of joke cards, "That is all."


You can purchase The Areas of My Expertise from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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The Areas of My Expertise

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  • FTFR: (Score:4, Funny)

    by Shadow Wrought (586631) <shadow,wrought&gmail,com> on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:38PM (#14045764) Homepage Journal
    Random pieces of crap, given an additional shuffle to make it seem all the more random.

    Yep. That'd be slashdot.

  • by nekojin (855341) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:39PM (#14045770)
    But everyone knows hobos don't have names. It's always just 'That guy on the median at the intersection of Ironwood and Laneview St.'.
  • by lampiaio (848018) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:40PM (#14045783)
    At first, I though that everyone, knew how to use proper, punctuation. But, now I see, I, was wrong.
  • by nganju (821034) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:44PM (#14045812)

    and even more absurdist segueways to carry

    is that pronounced seg-way-ways? Reminds me of the "ATM Machine" joke...
  • by C10H14N2 (640033) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:48PM (#14045844)
    ...I was thinking the same thing on about the third sentence of that review.
  • New English (Score:4, Insightful)

    by saskboy (600063) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:52PM (#14045890) Homepage Journal
    I think the Internet will breed a new dialect of english, and I'm not talking about leet speak, or "how r u" abbreviations. I think it will permit english to be used in new ways where the reader isn't sure what the writer is getting at. Sound bytes will be more important in winning someone over to the writer's view, not a coherent argument.

    New English Rulez! (for instance).
    • it will permit english to be used in new ways where the reader isn't sure what the writer is getting at

      That would completely defeat the entire purpose of language. Not to mention, it would make self-propagation of the meme rather difficult, if no one can decode the message.

      Not to say that some of the deliberately incoherent or semicoherent work of authors such as Stein have no value... But their value lies directly in breaking the verbal mind out of its rut, rather than as a means of communication.


      S
      • "Not to mention, it would make self-propagation of the meme rather difficult, if no one can decode the message."

        Difficulty propagating is the point. If the non-target group doesn't "get it", then the language acts as a kind of encrypted language for the "in crowd" who does understand, or at least think they understand because it's so ambiguous that it means just what they want it to mean. Fox News of course excells at this kind of language, and so does Bush's speech writers. "We do not torture!" A sound
      • That would completely defeat the entire purpose of language.

        What you say?
        Somebody set up us the bomb!

        Not to mention, it would make self-propagation of the meme rather difficult, if no one can decode the message.

        All your base are belong to us!
        HA HA HA HA
    • Sound bytes will be more important in winning someone over to the writer's view, not a coherent argument.

      Like, "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit"?
    • English is already capable of ambiguity and multiple levels of meaning, as are most languages. It has always been that way. One of the reasons that people have been arguing about the significance of the Old Testament for thousands of years is that ancient Hebrew was an especially flexible and ambiguous language.

      As far as short units of meaning go, summaries of longer works (epitomes) and collections of epigrams were very popular among the Greeks and Romans, and the potentials of text with absent or obscured
  • Titles? (Score:3, Funny)

    by winkydink (650484) * <sv.dude@gmail.com> on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @01:54PM (#14045908) Homepage Journal
    Most of the books sent to Slashdot for review have words like "Java", "hacks", or "802.11b"

    I thought most books had the words "Google", "Apple", or that up-and-comer "Ubuntu".

    Oh wait, that's articles. Never mind.
  • At least, in that they're filled with lots of random little suggestions on how to do things.

    The O'Reilly books are incredibly useful, though - at least Linux Server Hacks [amazon.com] certainly was; I just used hack # 99 (the RewriteMap hack [blogs.com]) a week or so ago to do some simple load-balancing. Very handy.
  • New Form of Book... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by querencia (625880) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:01PM (#14045958)
    Vonnegut tried to write Slaugherhouse-Five as "a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore." In Tralfamadorian books, there is no story arc -- just a colleciton of clumps of symbols. "Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene. Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image which is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects."

    Vonnegut tried to mimic this style by taking a traditional story arc and shuffling the pieces, but maybe this (or the new types of loosely connected symbols on the web) gets closer to the ideal by removing the story arc entirely.

    It certainly seems like you get a sense of character from this book, even without any type of narrative.
    • by Golias (176380) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:12PM (#14046029)
      Vonnegut tried to mimic this style by

      Uh...

      He didn't really mimic anything, because there's no such place as planet Tralfamadore. He made it all up.

      Sorry I had to be the one to tell you.
      • He didn't really mimic anything, because there's no such place as planet Tralfamadore. He made it all up.

        I disagree. I'll have you know that I've been there forty years from now. /me goes back to playing the stock market.
    • I don't think I've read any of those, but I'll make a point to look for them the next time I'm at the library. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a practically unknown short story that is even more plotless than you're describing, and is one of my all-time favorites. If you're a fan, you know that he rarely includes a detail that isn't significant. Consequently, the longer he takes to describe the setting, the better the story usually is.

      Toward the end of a collection of his short stories that I own, he takes sever

  • by Morgaine (4316) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:03PM (#14045965)
    It's been coming our way for a while now, and this book is very much in tune with the times.

    We've had our renaissance and our golden ages of reason and intellectualism and humanistic idealism that gave rise to pro-people icons like the Constitution of the United States.

    Now instead we have the encroaching 1984 of Blair, the religious fundamentalism of Bush, and a corporate-driven media culture which farms the brainless masses like cattle and teaches them the new values of disconnected speech. Who needs Voltaire when your mind can find fulfillment in Snoop Dog?

    The book of TFA is mainstream in this new world of post-intellectualism. Welcome to the new Dark Age.
    • by Golias (176380) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:25PM (#14046125)
      I think you have it exactly backwards.

      In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the only people who had any time at all for reading was the idle rich. Writers of the time wrote specifically for that audience, meeting the demand for massive, flowery novels and lengthy all-encompassing screeds of political philosophy which the brightest and the best (by which I mean the very rich) could while away their long summer afternoons burying their noses into as they ate their picnic lunches on the riverbanks.

      Today, nearly everybody is literate, including those of us who work 40-60 hours each week and don't have nannies, maids, and butlers to take care of our children and homes for us. We are very lucky to have time to keep up with a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly or National Review, let alone read "Anna Karenina" or "The Wealth of Nations."

      So "light reading" is very popular right now.

      Longer works are probably read at a much higher rate than they used to be. Meaning 1% of the population buys them, and far fewer actually ever finish reading them. At least these days we force our High School kids to get through "Animal Farm", "Huckleberry Finn", and maybe a Shakespear play or two. That's more reading than the average 18th Century factory-town kid ever got exposed to.

      A new collection of Dilbert strips to read in the bathroom? Terrific! A new novel by Anne Rice based on the 7-year old Jesus Christ? Dude, I don't have time to read a review of it, let alone the whole book. Maybe I'll put it on my list of Things To Read After I Retire... but there will be a lot of other works way ahead of it on that list.
      • Your statement, unintentionally, made me sad.

        Perhaps my view of the world was skewed since I came from a family that read a lot, while working 8+ hours a day. And in my busy schedual I still manage to finish a book a week (of nonfiction, generally), not counting all of the other reading I must do in the run of my life, all the articals, forums, books, etc.

        But then again I haven't turned on my TV for 3 months, and have started limiting my online times, because they were taking away from intellectual activit
      • We are very lucky to have time to keep up with a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly or National Review, let alone read "Anna Karenina" or "The Wealth of Nations."

        That's a bunch of hooey. Most people spend hours watching television. We have numerous labor-saving devices which allow us to have free time, like washing machines, dish washers, television, indoor plumbing, et cetera. People could do all their chores back then, and they take a lot less time now... Everything required more maintenance two o

    • Yeah because other than the last ten years the world has been such a peachy place.

      This is no Dark Age. In a lot of ways things are better than they were.

      Orwell was bitching about corporations controlling the (print) media long before most Slashdot readers' parents were born. Want to stay in business? You need revenue. Revenue comes from ads. Ads come from corporations and they expect you to dance to the tune they play if you want them to spend their money with you.

      Stalin had the 1984 thing working quit
    • "Now...we have...the religious fundamentalism of Bush." Actually, there's nothing new about religious fundamentalism of Presidents. It has actually been the norm. Calling it "religious fundamentalism", now that's new.
  • "The gags are all about the randomness of the wrong information cluttering his minds"

    Gack. I feel overwhelmed sometimes with all the info clouding my single mind, I wonder how he manages with two or more?
    • One of his minds is dedicated exclusively to managing the clutter in the others. One mind is for writing gags about the clutter. Another is dedicated to writing about cheese.
  • I still chuckle when I think about the list of jokes that "have never produced laughter."

    If they made you chuckle then they no longer belong in that list, right? Kind of like the set of all sets that do not include themselves...
    • But it was the list that produced the chuckle, not the individual jokes, so we're fine.
    • Ow.

      I was about to say "I don't see why a set of all sets that do not include themselves is difficult", but then I tried to think of a set that DID include itself, which is an impossibility (or requires placeholders and is still infinitely recursive).

      (\x x x)(\x x x)
  • I guess book reviewer's a gamer too
  • by CharAznable (702598) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:17PM (#14046058)
    use constant REVIEW_SCORE => 8;
  • Uh ... it's a joke (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Metamediarich (716847) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:19PM (#14046083) Homepage
    The reviewer fails to mention that this entire book is a send-up - it's fiction - What this guy "knows" is like Stephen Colbert from the Daily Show - This is a physical manifestation of an observation Mark Twain is reputed to have made: "Our biggest problem is not what we don't know; it's what we know, that ain't so."
  • by digitaldc (879047) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:21PM (#14046101)
    "The sections are all very silly and the humor emerges from a form of metaphysical misdirection. I still chuckle when I think about the list of jokes that "have never produced laughter." The jokes really aren't funny, but there's something insane in their very deliberate and plodding failure."

    Sounds like a very baked-out idea to me. Plodding failure is a joke in itself.

    PS what in the world is 'metaphysical misdirection?' is that like ending up in purgatory? Or getting lost on the way to church?

    Reminds me of what Lord Byron wrote in Don Juan:
    "Explaining metaphysics to the nation, I wish he would explain his explanation."
  • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:21PM (#14046102) Homepage
    Some guy recently bought a paper copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica and read through it. Then he wrote a book [amazon.com] about doing it. Amazon sales rank around 5000.

    Maybe he was the inspiration for this guy.

  • The web (Score:1, Troll)

    by swillden (191260)
    the web is made up by many small pieces of information arranges with hyperlinks that join them, loosely if you will

    ...and ungrammatically, too.

    Yep, that's the web, all right.

  • 1st draft (Score:1, Flamebait)

    by twistedcubic (577194)
    Did anyone else find that hard to read?
  • core dumps these days?
    • Sure! I had one as my .plan file on my university account for somewhere a little under a year. Eventually I changed it, though... now it's just the complete comedies of Shakespeare (I got bored of copying and pasting before I got to the tragedies and histories).
  • by Mechanist (10536) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:08PM (#14046562)
    One section of the book-- "Secrets of the Mall of America"-- was read by the author as part of the September 23 edition of the public radio show "This American Life". The show is in their online archives for this year [thisamericanlife.org]. Or you can go directly to the stream of the show. [thisamericanlife.org]. Hodgman's part begins around 45 minutes into the show.
  • Seriously. I think I'll check it out.

    TZ

  • "The Book of Lists" by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace.

    "Eyeless in Gaza" by Aldous Huxley.

    "Trout Fishing in America" by Richard Brautigan.
  • by PaschalNee (451912) <[pnee] [at] [toombeola.com]> on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @05:34PM (#14047898) Homepage
    Similar effort [amazon.co.uk] - a book full of stuff

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