Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a fiction book. It’s not that I don’t read; I spend the majority of my evenings poring over non-fiction of some kind or another (business, history and engineering being my favourite subjects). I just never really saw the point of fiction.

That was, until I read Why Every Man Should Read Jane Austen, by one of my favourite bloggers, Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness. The Art of Manliness is one of my favourite blogs on the Internet (and you should definitely subscribe if you enjoy long-form blogging about philosophy and practical skills, regardless of gender). As such, I was intrigued.

Particularly fascinating to me was the discussion of ‘theory of mind’, the ability for us to understand each other and attribute emotions to other people. Honestly, it’s something I’ve never been particularly good at. Other people’s emotions are guesswork to most people most of the time, and to me (and combined with a healthy dose of impostor syndrome in my work) it is mostly cause for panic.

Initially I read the article and then almost dismissed it; I put it at the bottom of a very long to-do list (which will never be complete, my grandchildren will be splitting it up between them when I die). But it kept coming back to me, gnawing at me almost. I don’t read much fiction. I could be better at understanding others. My writing skills have deteriorated.

A week ago I couldn’t bear it any more and downloaded the book on Google Play (substitute Kindle, Project Gutenberg or a physical book store as you like). I thought it might be nice to read a couple of chapters each night to wind down before sleep. Oh how wrong I was. I was hooked.

Three days later, I’d read the entire book (including staying up to 3am two nights in a row), as well as watched the entire BBC mini-series of 6 hours (which I did in one sitting).

This book is incredible.

There’s intrigue, there’s romance, there’s comedy, there’s so much metaphorical bitch-slapping you wouldn’t believe.

Due to the age of the book (it’s written and set in Regency England) the language can be hard to read at times, especially the dialogue. People spoke to each other much differently then, and it took reading passages three or four times before I could sometimes understand them. There were also some passages I didn’t understand the significance of, because I couldn’t read the sarcasm or other inflections properly – it took watching the mini-series to sort that out.

But the difference in language is also one of the strongest points. It gives you an insight into how formal the language was then, and how formally they treated others as a general rule. To not be polite to somebody then was the worst thing that could possibly happen. And the ramifications would be severe: Mrs. Bennett’s loud-mouthedness almost cost her the potential marriages of two of her daughters.

There are other insights too. To do something dishonourable (such as live with a somebody out of wedlock, a big deal for fair reasons back then – there was no contraception) had an impact not only on other’s opinions of you, but also on your family and your friends, and for a very long time. This is something still true today, but it’s far less obvious and the reminder of it’s presence is welcome (even if the presence itself is not).

I also now understand a lot more pop culture references. So many TV shows make references to Pride and Prejudice. I always used to giggle when I saw a reference to some classic that I had read, and now I see them far more often. Even Top Gear made them. Almost for this reason alone I’ve committed to reading more fiction in the future. It makes everything more fun.

Why Thomas The Tank Engine Is Okay

I was recently linked to a story in the NZ Herald entitled “Why Thomas The Tank Engine Is Not Okay“. There were so many factual errors in the article, as well as a general lack of understanding that the fact that Thomas the Tank Engine is a commentary on British Railways’ policies in the 1940s and 1950s, that I could not let it stand.

Trains are sent to the scrapyard if they’re not useful. And we all know what that means – it means they’re executed.
There are no unions in Sodor, that’s for sure.

First of all, the human equivalent would be firing them (“making them redundant” in the capitalist jargon), not executing them. Secondly, unions don’t exist to prevent useless employees from being fired (except when unions have too much power), they are to prevent good employees from being taken advantage of.

The women trains are actually girl carriages.

Daisy (mentioned in the article) isn’t a carriage, she’s a diesel multiple unit (DMU). There’s a very important difference. In Britain in the 1950’s, DMUs were the future. Daisy is leading the way.

In addition, from a very quick look through the Wikipedia article, there are at least five female locomotives: Molly, Rosie, Belle, Mavis, and Flora. It’s definitely not a 50/50 mix gender-wise, and all of the original “Steam Team” are male, but it’s not zero. It’s just a basic lack of fact checking. Note that I’m not saying there shouldn’t be more female characters – I think there should be – but the article is just plain incorrect.

Either they have no personality (Daisy)…

This was the entire point of Daisy’s character. The Rev. Awdry (I believe) wanted to show diesel railcars as being unimaginative and dull compared to steam engines. This was a direct commentary on British Railways’ campaign to phase out steam engines on British main line railways in favour of diesel and electric propulsion. Steam then, as now, was seen as romantic and full of character compared to diesel. The character ‘Diesel’, the first diesel engine seen in the books, was rude and brash and nobody liked him – again, steam was better than diesel.

Every single character has a flaw in their personality. It’s part of the anthropomorphosis of the trains into people. Henry got bricked into a tunnel because he was too vain. James is rude and arrogant. They are all flawed, just like us.


Hacking Work – or how to write a book about nothing at all

"Hacking Work" CoverI recently travelled on an aeroplane to the Boxing Day cricket match in Melbourne. Before the flight home I was killing some time in the Borders in the terminal, when a book caught my eye. It’s name? Hacking Work, by Bill Jensen and Josh Klein.

After reading the back cover, I bought the book immediately. Who wouldn’t want to work smarter and get more done with less effort? It’s me in a nutshell. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed.

For most non-fiction books, the back cover is a very rough summation of the goal of the book, along with a few of the more interesting little titbits. For this book however, the blurb is the entire contents of the book. The other 200 odd pages are just fluff.

Section 1 of the book tells the reader that they are special, are born to “hack” work, and that managers will get in the way of everything.

Section 2 of the book tells the reader that they are special, are born to “hack” work, and that managers will get in the way of everything.

Section 3 of the book tells the reader that they are special, are born to “hack” work, and that managers will get in the way of everything.

Section 4 of the book tells the reader that they are special, are born to “hack” work, and that their employees will try to hack work too.

Unfortunately, nowhere in this book are there actual instructions for any methods of actually getting more done in less time. There are occasional snippets detailing what people have done before, usually followed by “we don’t recommend actually doing this”.

I personally consider myself somewhat of a life hacker, and this is a travesty of a book about “hacking”. The severe degradation of the meaning of the word “hack” is beyond annoying, it’s almost insulting.

Zero stars. I wouldn’t read it if it was free.