I spent most of the past weekend lazing about reading a book I picked up on impulse. I haven’t done a book review before but I thought I’d give it a shot because I think many atheists and skeptics could benefit from some of the insights in it. The subtitle of the book is certain to appeal to those two groups, “Adventures with the Enemies of Science,” and the first chapter, which starts out among creationists, is certain to appeal to skeptics. Later in the book, there is a chapter in which skeptics themselves come in for a great deal of criticism. Although I think Storr has taken a subset of skeptics and had them stand in for all skeptics and his criticism, while not entirely off base, is a little harsh on that account. Yet many of his insights would be especially beneficially to skeptics and movement atheists, who often identify with skeptics, so reminding oneself to not give in to our initial emotional reaction and become highly defensive might be necessary in order to give his ideas a fair hearing.

One of the things I liked most about Storr as an author was his readiness to doubt his own opinions. He starts out by asking why some people believe things that are easily disproved. The list is diverse, creationists, UFO abductees, people who object to western medicine, homeopaths, believers in past lives, ritual Satanic child abuse, and a couple of other items I’m missing. By passing the easy answers, that they’re charlatans or fools, he looks into more general questions of why people believe the things they do. In doing so, he discovers that human beings are, in general, unreliable narrators.

I consider – as everyone surely does – that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they become a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true…. So I accept that I am wrong about things – I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science all the rest of it… …. – it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am….

It is as if I have caught a glimpse of some grotesque delusion that I am stuck inside. It is disorienting. It is frightening. And I think it is true to say that it is not just me – that is, we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.

I, myself, have experienced many times just this sense of disorientation. In fact, it was the main reason I started writing down my memories. It is clear that a great many people don’t believe as I do on many subjects, often people I estimate to be perfectly rational and intelligent. I started writing my memories down to explore how my own biases came to be in place.

At another point later in the book, he explores the question of how it is possible to be a journalist if a person believes he might be an unreliable narrator.

Storr is, by his own accounting, an atheist. Much as I would myself, I would call him a skeptic, but not a Skeptic. In other words, he seeks and expects naturalistic explanations for events but he does not belong to any organized skeptical organizations. As a Brit, he makes the distinction between the two groups by using the British spelling. A detail which has its own interest to me that I’ll get back to later.

In between episodes talking to people who believe hard to believe things, Storr paints a picture about how our minds work. That picture is one of a brain that is not always rational and works to deceive us. He introduces the reader to “situational psychology.” Giving well-known examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, he explains that individuals are far less in control of themselves than we believe ourselves to be.

According to Zimbardo, there is a kind of recipe for creating evil. ‘How did evil come about during the prison experiment?’ he asks. It was people playing a role…. Although you start off thinking those roles are arbitrary and not the real you, as you live them, they become you. the second thing is the power of the group…. Groups can have powerful influences on individual behavior…. You take away somebody’s individuality. You make them anonymous. The next process is called dehumanisation, where you begin to think of other people as different from you and then as different from your kind and kin, and then as less than human.

Later, he describes how the brain makes an interior model of the world. When we look, at any given moment we are not seeing as much as we think we are seeing. As our eyes dart around a room, for instance, the brain fills in the gaps and we think we are seeing more than we are at any given moment. As Storr phrases it, our senses are “fact-checkers.” However, that model must be good enough that we can function in the world.

The next point Storr brings up is tribalism. We have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We will do this even if we are assigned to arbitrary groups.

“Cognitive Dissonance” is uncomfortable feeling we have when we are introduced to facts that don’t fit our interior models of how the world works.

We find ourselves chewing over something that we have done or heard or experienced. It can last for hours, days or sometimes longer. That upstairs agony, that bickering between the warring voices in our head – that is what it feels like to have your brain taking apart an experience and rearrange it in such a way that it doesn’t have to rebuild its models.

The next factor Storr introduces is another one my skeptical friends will recognize, “Confirmation Bias,” which Storr describes as the “makes sense stopping rule.”

…when confronted by a new fact, we first feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch. It is a raw instinct for whether the fact is right or wrong and it pulls us helplessly in the direction of an opinion. Then we look for evidences that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.

When we arrive at that point of “that makes sense,” when our cognitive dissonance is eased, the reward center in the brain is activated. Storr quotes Carole Tavris and Elliot Aronson: “Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high.”

One point Storr hammers over and over again is that we are all subject to these effects. It’s an inherent part how the human brain works to which none of us are immune. To some extent, I believe he underplays the positive role of this. We make countless decisions everyday, most of which are far more mundane than whether or not UFOs exist. If we had to stop and wonder about how we know the things we know, we would be paralyzed. Sometimes, when we skeptics and atheists criticize the “argument from authority,” I pause and think to myself that much of what I believe I believe based on “authority.” I think eggs, spinach and bananas are healthy things to eat, and that if you’re exercising bananas are really important. Why do I think this? Because my competitive speed skater grandmother told me so.

Another important element of the picture is “the spotlight effect,” which I always think of as “the candle effect.” The best description I’ve read of this effect is in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She describes a table covered in a million random scratches with no pattern. Yet, if you hold a candle up to it, the light will make it appear as if the scratches are in concentric circles around the point of the light. So our own egos lead us to believe that the world revolves around us. Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.

The roles of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the spotlight effect are summarized:

Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. The form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and the  they disappear from view.

These models of the world we build, they are the stories we tell ourselves to explain how the world works.

This notion that we are all deluding ourselves all the time leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the line between the sane and the insane is not as clear as we would like to believe. Studies have shown that even perfectly sane people have unreliable memories. Healthy people can have false memories implanted.

Professor Loftus was interested to see whether it was possible for a therapist to generate a memory of an event simply by suggesting it. In a further study, she gave twenty-four adults a brief description of four past events that they were told had been supplied by a close family member and asked to write about them. Unbeknown to them, one of these events was false. Six of them – 25 per cent of the croup -= actually remembered the false event. When asked to choose which of their memories was fiction, five got it wrong.

Another important aspect of how our minds work is that our emotions guide our behavior. I, myself, have long thought this to be true and the tendency for skeptics to downplay the importance of emotions in our thought processes has always bugged me a bit.

If you are about to do something that your models predict will be good, you will get a subtle encouraging hit of pleasure. If you are about to do something inadvisable, you will feel bad.

Of course, one of the funny things about reading a book like this is that it makes you doubt your own ability to judge the contents of the very same book. Storr just confirmed my own model. Of course, I had that satisfying sensation of “yep – makes sense.” Is Storr making sense or do I only believe he makes sense because he agrees with me?

When my grandmother was going senile, we would catch her doing odd thing. Digging out her old ice skates in the middle of the summer and heading out the door with them. Walking around in odd clothing. When my mother would confront her, she would momentarily look confused and then come up with an “explanation.”

“My friend is coming to pick me up and we’re going skating.”

Then my mother would get furious and start yelling, “Why are you lying. It’s summer. No one is going skating! What friend are you talking about? No one is coming!”

My grandmother would look confused and start crying.

This is a funny trick our brain plays on us. Sometimes it makes up explanations.

There appears to be a lack of consensus on exactly how much of our conscious reasoning is confabulation. Opinions range from those of Professor David Eagleman, who says that ‘the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand,’ to those of Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner, who argues that even our sense of having free will is a confabulation….

The final chapter is titled “Hero-Maker.” According to Storr, the key elements of a story are crisis, struggle and resolution. Our brains take in the chaotic events in the world and, in order to make them understandable, weave for us a narrative, and in our narratives we are the heroes of our own lives and our own stories. We do not weigh the evidence objectively, even though we may believe we do. We fact check them against our models. When the evidence conflicts with the models, we experience negative emotions. We search for more evidence. We must either rebuild our models, a very difficult thing for adults, or find evidence that fits our preexisting models. That is the struggle. When we finally have a resolution, we feel good.

The scientific method is the tool that human have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and to leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Who among us hasn’t had an argument in which he or she felt fairly confident about the facts and then came across someone making a statement that was easily refutable. You go, you get link. You have what you feel is nice solid proof to refute the assertion, and the person will not accept it. I had that just the other day with a comment that someone made about affirmative actions and quotas. As it happens, quotas are illegal in the United States. That was a fairly straightforward bit of information, I thought. I wasn’t arguing the pros or cons of affirmative action because that a far more involved argument and I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to correct the record about one smallish fact, quotas. The response of the other person was to move the goal posts. It was, to say the least, maddening and frustrating.

Of course, it wasn’t about facts. We had opposing stories. Or at least he had a story into which my facts didn’t fit. I, myself, am ambivalent about affirmative action. He, however, had a story about how affirmative action was put in place to hurt white people. In his story, he was bravely standing up to the PC establishment that won’t admit the truth. I got frustrated and gave up.

I think atheists, skeptics and liberals need to be more sensitive to the narratives we tell. One of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda I’ve ever read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As literature, I only enjoyed it intermittently. The Victorian sentimentality was hard to take. I couldn’t wait for that fucking little Eva to die. Apparently, the Victorians had a think about sweet, innocent girls suffering bravely. Me, I was sick of it after five pages, shouting, “Die already!” at my paperback. Still, I had to marvel at Harriett Beecher Stowe’s talent as a propagandist. The most brilliant move she makes is that she gives everyone someone with whom he or she can identify and still feel good joining the abolitionist cause. I believe that it was important to the effectiveness of the book that there were sympathetic slave owners. Instead of insisting that all slave owners are inherently evil, Stowe reassuringly says, “Of course, you are a good person, but you should oppose slavery because everyone is not as good as you.” If you are Northerners who would like to stay out of the question, you have the Birds. In later years, the name “Uncle Tom” would become a slur because African-American activists would view Tom as too passive. However, the novel is a carefully constructed piece of propaganda that was clearly effective in its day.

One of the reasons I object so regularly to people who say that Americans are dumb, and other negative things, is because it is a statement that, while satisfying to the speaker, undermines any larger goals of getting Americans, those people you just called dumb, to agree with you. This is part of a narrative that many people on the left enjoy, especially in the United States. They live beset on all sides by ignorance and prejudice, superstition and complacency. The US is evil, possessing as it does the original sin of slavery, or if that doesn’t suit you the original sin of conquest, evil that can never be expiated. However, they are “fighting the good fight,” out numbered on all sides. In order to bolster their ego, they exaggerate the threats. No country is as awful as the U.S. No people are as religious. None is as poorly educated. Hell, we’re even the fattest.

Personally, I don’t like this narrative because it requires that we lose. We fight nobly, but we lose.

People do sometimes change their minds and I wish he had explored a little bit more about why that happens.

I may write some more posts inspired by this book in the future.

One last thing, the Skeptic vs. sceptic question. Storr, being a Brit, writes “sceptic,” not “skeptic.” He notes that many of the organized skeptics, even in Britain, prefer the American spelling. It becomes a weird little bit of us vs. them. Storr, the sceptic, vs. the Skeptics. Storr’s writing about skeptics had an air of “both sides do it.” As Paul Krugman famously quipped, if George Bush said the Earth was flat the headlines the following day would read, “Shape of Earth, Views Differ.” Likewise, Storr writes, “Psychic Phenomenon, Views Differ.” Storr’s own story is that of an irrational, messed up teenager and young adult who somehow got his shit together to become a reasonable, well-balanced person. There are the fervent people, the extremists, and in this view Skeptics and UFO abductees are on the same side, and then there are the adults in the room, like Storr and Jonathan Haidt, a professor he frequently quotes. Generally, Storr is pretty aware of his own biases, but he seems to miss this one, so I found it amusing.

(The British edition of the book appears to be called “The Heretics.”)

Before heading off to bed, I though I’d take a quick look at the weather. I also glanced at the Daily Beast website which was already open in a different tab because the internet is like that. I just saw in the sidebar, “Who the Hell is Patrick Modiano?” Darling, darling, darling, you are soooo provincial; it’s almost sweet.

About a decade or so ago, I asked a French acquaintance if he could suggest some contemporary French authors. He recommended several, but the next day the only name I could recall was Patrick Modiano. The book he had recommended was Rue des boutiques obscures, but I couldn’t find it in New York at the time. I did, however, come across La Place de l’Etoile, and read that. About a year or so later, I did find a used copy of Rue des boutiques obscures.

So, when I saw the headline, my first thought was that he must have died. Happily, no. He apparently has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

Now, I will go fall asleep with a feeling of self-satisfied cosmopolitanism.

Oh, right, he’s not a bad choice for those of you whose French is pretty good but it takes you a long time to read because his books tend to be short. They’re not especially easy, the length makes it bearable. There were a lot of places were I felt confuse by what was going on and had to reread sections several times.

For about a decade now, we have been deluged with media products directed to the type of woman who loves Jane Austen. The cynical side of me sometimes wonders if many of these Jane Austen fans have actually read Jane Austen, or if they saw a couple of movies, to which they didn’t pay much attention, but they love the idea of women in pretty dresses falling in love with men in nice suits. In the world-wide world which is the world wide web, I have discovered that I am a rank amateur when it comes to reading. However, in the little world in which I grew up, I was seen as being bookish. I can remember a time when it seemed to me that girls would rather poke out their eyes than read something written longer ago than last year. I was something of an oddball for reading Victorian novels with long descriptive passages and compound sentences, and other adolescent girls most certainly let me know it. Needless to say, I am more than a little suspicious of Austen’s sudden popularity. Before someone writes a comment in all-caps, let me acknowledge that some people have actually read Jane Austen and, if you’re angry enough to type in all-caps, you are probably that person. Indeed, at least in my mind, you are a type.

Now, who am I to dismiss the miss that people more knowledgeable than I have called the greatest novelist in the English language. All I can say is that she doesn’t quite capture my heart. Actually, she leaves me cold. I’ve enjoyed her novels, but I haven’t loved them. Yet there are novelists that I do love, and I do hope they never become the center of a craze as Jane Austen has. I do not desire to have a ton of media product directed at me and my type.

Accompanied by a great deal of apprehension, I have recently discovered that I am a type, too. What a drag.

In an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago, the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch, much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.”

And what kind of woman is this certain kind? According to Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writing in The American Prospect:

George Eliot doesn’t have the modern celebrity of Jane Austen, which makes her all the more lovable for that “certain kind” of woman who aspires to moral and intellectual seriousness.

Further down in the same article about Rebecca Mead’s book she says:

Few nineteenth-century heroines resonate with this woman like Dorothea Brooke. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are too rash; Becky Sharp too conniving; Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett too provincial; Tess Durbeyfield too pathetic. Dorothea is, in Gordon’s words, “above all serious, and although she considers herself passionate, she is not about to act in a headlong way.” By allying herself with Dorothea—and by extension, Eliot—Mead grasps for a bit of this gravity. She’s writing for anyone who likes getting snaps for having read and loved Middlemarch, and who sees an attack on the book as an attack on her own intellectual seriousness.

(By the way, what is a “snap” in this context?)

I’m tempted here to go off on a tangent. The way most people fixate on Dorothea when discussing Middlemarch to me seems to undermine the point of the book. The cast of characters is huge and the interplay between society and individuals is essential. The book concentrates on a group of young people who, while being interconnected by virtue of living in the same region, span a wide range of class backgrounds and are not all intimates by any means. Fixating on Dorothea misses the greater part of the book. As these young people find their way in the world, they make decisions about their lives and they are hardly passive, but these decisions do not happen in isolation. They are actors in their own lives and yet they are not totally in control. The circumstances of their lives cannot be entirely avoided.

Furthermore, call me weird, but I identified, not with Dorothea, but with Ladislaw. (If any wealthy person who happens to be very much like Dorothea Brooke and would like to marry and render my interminable career changes irrelevant, there’s a contact form on my About page. NB: I am not very particular as to appearances or gender.) It also annoys me somewhat that everyone ignores Mary Garth. She’s one of my favorite characters in the book and I think she and Fred Vincy, as foolish as he is, are my favorite couple. They are also the only pair that seem to wind up comparatively happy, although perhaps Dorothea’s younger sister Celia and her husband are happy as well.

This brings me to another part of Thompson-DeVeaux’s article:

Middlemarch is a deeply sad book; gifted people make fatally foolish choices and can’t escape the consequences, no matter how hard they try…. It has the capacity to inspire intense self-doubt in all manner of people, especially those who are ambitious.

Mead elides this sadness. She acknowledges a “vein” of melancholy in the famous last sentence, which declares Dorothea a saint of the ordinary, one of the countless women who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” But in the last few pages of the book, Mead returns to Eliot, who lived a life that was, if not happy, then certainly extraordinary. By focusing so owlishly on Eliot, she manages to lose the reason why Middlemarch is worth reading in the first place.

I’ve read the book five times, and I have to say that it gets sadder as you get older. As I got older and the gap between my ambition and what I would be able to achieve in life became evident, the book became all the more somber. We can never entirely transcend the circumstances of our lives no matter how hard we try, and that is certainly a sobering thought. We are embedded in our societies and it is notable that Eliot chose as the title of her book the name of the place.

If Austen, as she famously declared when she said that she painted on ivory, worked in miniature, then Middlemarch is like one of those large history paintings. I suppose that we can only be thankful that Middlemarch and Zombies would simply be too much work.

There seems to be a trend towards memoirs centered around other works of literature, Reading X-Book in Y-Circumstance. For some reason I can’t quite identify, they don’t appeal to me, although I have this vague sense of being their target market. I haven’t read any of these, so perhaps my sense that I won’t like them is off base, but I probably won’t read My Life in Middlemarch. On the other hand, for a sufficient advance I would be more than willing to turn my current effort, Reading CraigsList in New York, to Reading de Sade in Paris, and I would be willing to include a variety of French pornographic literature. Then, perhaps with luck, I can marry a young admirer who will hopefully not throw himself out a window on our honeymoon.



Over the past several days, I’ve written ridiculously long comments on someone else’s blog that I feel almost could have been a post in its own right. Yet, without the context I’m not sure how to turn it into one.

It started with me getting my nose out of joint, as usual, over the subject of Americans being a bunch of terrible, uncouth louts. I tried explaining why this was emotionally triggering to me. In response I got something to the effect of, “But you are a bunch of uncouth louts.” I guess. But few people grow up in “The United States.” We grow up in specific environments, particular towns. One of the reasons I started writing is because I feel like my particular point of view is not represented publicly anywhere I look. I feel invisible on several levels. Sexuality is a big one, as is my particular moderate liberal political orientation. One level where I feel invisible is the cultural environment in which I grew up. On the one hand, it was very much part of the mainstream. On another hand, it feels very underrepresented in the media. The more I write about my adolescence, the more I would like to introduce that world to other people. It certainly has its flaws, but all in all it wasn’t so bad.

I grew up in an ethnically diverse, religiously diverse, comparatively tolerant environment that, to my mind, has no less reason to be considered “American” than anyplace else in this country. Will someone tell me who gave the Deep South and Appalachia the trademark on the word American? Where I grew up may not be “typically American,” but, at the same time, it’s very American in so far as it couldn’t have been anything else. I have just as much right to this country as anyone else here, dammit.

I’m not going to excuse myself for getting emotionally involved and perseverating (Yes, WordPress, it’s a word.) over a particular topic. Artistically and intellectually it’s been a surprisingly productive trait, although my friends and family can find it tiresome and it can be emotionally draining sometimes. So rather than avoid the topic, I’ve decided to delve further into it and I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject of regional differences in North America and the United States.

Many years ago, I read the book Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. Although I think he overstates his case in many ways, it was eye-opening to me. For years, I always wondered why the “America” I see portrayed in the media bore so little resemblance to the world I knew. Fischer describes how the core settlements in different regions of North America, which would eventually become parts of the U.S., were originally settled by people from different areas of the British Isles, primarily England, who brought with them different regional cultures. It was eye-opening because I finally understood not simply that different areas of the country had different subcultures, but why.

As I said, I think he overstates his case in many ways. First of all, I don’t accept this entirely culturally driven model. That’s not a small area of disagreement and that requires a lengthy explanation. Hopefully, I will be able to get to it eventually. Secondly, Fischer insists, repeatedly, that these four English subcultures are the main drivers of American culture and downplays the influence of other groups. As someone from New Jersey, specifically from the region that had previously been the colony of East Jersey, I couldn’t place my own culture within his framework. Reading the book, I mentally went back and forth between his description of the culture of East Anglia (Yankees) and that of the Midlands (The City of Brotherly Love/West Jersey). Both were familiar, especially the culture of the Midlands as described by Fischer, but neither felt right.

Fischer’s book, despite it’s drawbacks, was widely influential and it’ s frequently quote. I find myself citing it frequently too.

Then a few years ago, I came across another book, The Island at the Center of the World. Perhaps it’s because I found the book in a store near Hunter College on Lexington Avenue, but looking at the title I knew immediately what island Shorto meant. Now, if you don’t know where the Center of the World is, allow me to humbly, modestly inform you that it is New York City. Shorto describes the original Dutch colony. One important aspect of the colony of New Netherlands is that, during the Dutch golden age, they had difficulty finding colonists and the original colonists came from a variety of places. New York has been multicultural from the day it was founded. Reading his book, I thought to myself, now this place is familiar.

So now I’m reading a book called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. He fills in some of the gaps I felt while reading Fischer’s book. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I get further into it.

Fortuitous timing, coupled with my inability to leave a bookstore empty-handed, caused me to pick up Charlie LeDuff’s new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. The only thing fortuitous was my timing because, as everyone has heard by now, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. Suddenly Detroit has taken on a symbolic importance. The bankruptcy itself, being too recent, doesn’t make it into LeDuff’s book, however the symbolism of Detroit does.

No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008…. Detroit became epic, historic, symbolic, hip even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what the city was like, what was happening here…. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay?

A page later he answers the question:

Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.

LeDuff starts out by explaining how he once worked for the most prestigious newspaper in the country, New York Times. Throughout the book, he clearly enjoys writing about ordinary people and he tried to do so at the Times.

The editor called the farmers and hunters and drive-through attendants and factory workers I wrote about losers.


Losers. That was 80 percent of the country, and the new global economic structure was cranking out more.

He makes a bid for why we should have an interest in his losers, especially those in Detroit, like the one he starts the book with, a man dead, frozen in a block of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building:

At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.

LeDuff’s got style. I confess I’ve always had a weakness for hard-boiled prose, terse sentences and vivid images. First, however, I wanted to know, is this hard-boiled stance, this attitude of having been around the block in some less than savory neighborhoods, legitimately earned or an affectation. Within the first couple of chapters I decided it was legitimate. Even if it wasn’t I might have forgiven it because it does make the book a lively read.

LeDuff grew up in a nearby suburb of Detroit and much of his family still lives there. He makes it clear throughout that he identifies with the place. He becomes a character in his own story. Sometimes, this can come across as a writer photobombing their own book. In Detroit, it works because, at times, it’s almost as much a memoir as a work of reportage.

There’s something just a bit peculiar about reading a book about Detroit while sitting in Baltimore. Mention of one seems to bring about thoughts of the other. Even The New York Times’ review feels a need to make a comparison. LeDuff’s “encompassing sense of civic outrage can remind one of David Simon. But whereas Simon earned liberal accolades for exposing Baltimore’s underbelly in ‘The Wire,’ in Detroit such a focus can seem, if not politically conservative, at least culturally retrograde….” LeDuff himself makes a few mentions of Baltimore as well, not that he appears to know much about it beyond its reputation as yet another washed up city that’s lost almost half its population. On the other hand, the people in Baltimore are most certainly not laughing at the people in Detroit. We’re holding our breath.

In the wake of the bankruptcy, the left and the right are battling it out to write the story of what happened to the city of Detroit and why. LeDuff tells a different story, a more specific one that puts a face on all those numbers, one that tells us why we’re even supposed to care.

I hope it comes out in a cheap paperback edition and gets a second chance to sit on the display table of the bookstore.

Well, I have to say that I spent several hours breathlessly enjoying something that, while pleasurable at the time, made feel cheap and dirty afterward. I just finished reading Ready Player One, which is almost a dystopian science fiction novel, I say almost because, although the novel takes place in a bleak future, it lacks the noir atmosphere and somber view of human nature that makes that genre just about the only type science fiction I regularly enjoy. In Ready Player One, the future is bleak. Although it isn’t spelled out exactly how that happened, it seems to be the result of the growing power of corporations and the impoverishment of much of the population. The one solace the population has, which may also be the reason the world has been allowed to rot the way it has, is an extremely realistic virtual reality.

A titmouse singing.One of the supposed joys of this book is its nostalgia for 1980s pop culture. This virtual world in which the population spends most of its waking hours was created by a pair of computer programmers who are… ah… just about my age. Yes, I recognized the name Gygax. I had good friends that played D+D and I gave it a try myself a few times. One of my closest friends, I mean close as in “we hit it off almost immediately when I was about sixteen and he wanted to find out who the girl with the pink hair was,” is a Doctor Who fan, a techie (when he’s in the mood) and the person who first introduced me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by lending me recordings of the original radio program. Me, I like comics. This author thinks he’s a geek? Yeah, then where’s the Elfquest reference? As it happens, he barely hits upon American alternative comics even though the eighties was when they came into their own.

So, does it sound to you as if I’m trying to prove my geek credentials? It probably does, but I need to come clean before we continue. I was never a geek. Do not worry. I will not turn out to have been an early embodiment one of those “cute girls who pretend to be nerds.” I probably barely qualified as a nerd, and I certainly never called myself one.

What’s irritating me about the novel is the concept of the geek itself. Geek is probably the fourth most common word in the book after the, a and and. The excessive growth of geek is something that my friend, the Doctor Who fan, derisively calls geek chic. What I object to is the geek as a ready-made identity and the idea of an identity as being identified by our patterns of consumption.

Ultimately, while the plotting is tight and it’s a fast fun read, the observations about society, humanity and human relationships feel trite and unoriginal, a sort of Science Fiction cotton candy.