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The Areas of My Expertise 174

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
rating 8
reviewer Peter Wayner

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."

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The Areas of My Expertise

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  • New English (Score:4, Insightful)

    by saskboy ( 600063 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @02:52PM (#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).
  • by Morgaine ( 4316 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:03PM (#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 plaisted ( 449711 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:10PM (#14046015) Homepage
    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...
  • Uh ... it's a joke (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Metamediarich ( 716847 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:19PM (#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 Golias ( 176380 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:25PM (#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.
  • Re:FTFR: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mmarlett ( 520340 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @03:45PM (#14046326)
    I don't know. Does the book repeat bits on every other page?
  • by Dahlgil ( 631022 ) on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @04:19PM (#14046675)
    "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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 16, 2005 @04:20PM (#14046689)
    If it's the same John Hodgman, the guy's a contributor [] to McSweeney's [] . Sounds like this material is very much in keeping with his work for them, and maybe some of it might have first appeared there.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."