Thursday, October 27, 2011

Non-Fiction: Context by Cory Doctorow

In his foreword to Cory Doctorow’s Context (Tachyon), publisher Tim O’Reilly calls Doctorow “one of the great context-setters of our generation, helping us all to understand the implications of the technology being unleashed around us.”

This has basically been true about everything Doctorow has cared to share with us, including his sharp and worthwhile novels, beginning with his first book-length work of fiction in 2003, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. This has been true, also, of his work online: all of it notable, including co-editing the irreverent and yet always relevant Boing Boing, as well as a series of essays and commentaries that, as both O’Reilly and the title suggest, give context to that which perhaps has never had it before.

In Context, Doctorow grapples eloquently with the great questions of our age. I think, though, that he would back away from that description. In his thoughts on computers and kids, dealing with encryption, the state of the blogosphere (“Reports of blogging’s death have been greatly exaggerated”) and how Apple is dumbing down computing, as well as all the other things -- large and small -- he talks about, Doctorow is observing as much as anything. His observations are wise, often witty and always entirely clued in, but still: they are clusters of his thoughts, brought together in his distinctive razor-sharp way.

If I have a single quibble, it’s that I would have liked to have seen a stronger edit on Context. The material here has been culled from various sources. The individual pieces started out as newspaper articles, columns, blog posts. There appears to have been little or no effort to making the pieces work with each other or, ironically enough, within the context of the book. I would have less of a problem with that if each piece were given context with a date and a credit line: where did the piece run? And when? This small amount of additional information would help the reader understand where Doctorow was coming from at the time he wrote the piece. But this really is a quibble and I recognize that, for every reader who is bothered by these omissions, there will likely be half a dozen who don’t feel the same way.

Depth of editing aside, Context is a deeply interesting and thought-provoking book. Beyond pure educated wool-gathering, Doctorow muses on creativity, productivity and parenting. The resulting collection is golden: and an absolute must-read for anyone who’s ever asked where all of this technology stuff is heading. It’s not so much that Doctorow provides the answers, but he helps us frame the questions in a way that leads us to manage it all for ourselves.

Context-setting, indeed! ◊

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.



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