walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Tyranny of E-mail_, John Freeman

Subtitled: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

This is published by Scribner's, and Freeman is currently editor at Granta. The book is thin (231, including prefatory matter, acknowledgements, etc.). It has on the back of the hardcover dust jacket recommendations (long ones) from Geraldine Brooks, James Shapiro (a professor at Columbia University) and Jim Holt. Shapiro says "closely argued and historically informed". Holt says "cool historical analysis and articulate outrage". I have to wonder if we read the same book.

There are errors of fact on nearly every page of the book; I blogged about two of them. In addition to errors of fact, he is too present-minded in the historical development (p 94: "A typewriter helped you type faster."). Freeman frequently uses metaphors badly (there's one about compasses which suggests the man has never actually used a compass, and he quotes someone else's metaphor about moving a house in order to explain packet networks): they do not add clarity and frequently misrepresent the thing he is analogizing to or from. Social commentary on celebrities creeps in on occasion, and not in a good way. His sourcing is bad and there are errors in the bibliography (possibly not his fault).

While both Holt and Shapiro mention the analysis, and Brooks was convinced about something-or-other, there is no clear rhetorical structure to the book. As near as I can tell, Freeman (by his own statement) made a lot of dumb mistakes as an e-mail user and decided to improve. He did some research, and concluded that the existing writing on the subject lacked historical perspective. So he put this together, in an effort to show that the way he (and, presumably, other e-mail users) _feel_ (and I do mean _feel_, because there is no thinking going on anywhere that I can find) about their e-mail is fundamentally different from how people felt about their correspondence in the past due to differences in available technology and a resulting difference in perception of time, experience of consciousness, sense of aloneness, sense of connectedness -- no, really, he does talk about all this stuff, quite earnestly.

Then he proceeds to say things that amount to: send less e-mail, be concise, switch to other modes where appropriate, format your e-mail for clarity, enforce life-work balance, etc. Unfortunately, he does not say it this clearly, and muddies things further by insisting that you must have a to do list and it must be on paper. Books -- good ones -- have been devoted to time management and planning; it would have been more helpful to supply pointers. Different things work for different kinds of people.

It's bad history. It's mediocre advice. It's so-so as polemic. I found it horrifyingly bad as rhetoric, but those recommendations on the back make me wonder. I suspect that what has happened here is that Freeman likes the sound of his voice, and a lot of people in the publishing industry like the sound of it, too. No one is doing much of anything to make sure that voice makes sense.

Which is a pity.

Don't waste your time.

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