The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
Thomas L. Friedman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2006)

Expanded and revised version, 2006; original edition, 2005.

READ: January 2007 (unfinished)

All you need to know about this book is summarized thus: Ugh.

For those of you who feel that isn't an adequate review, read on:

I was looking forward to reading this book. It had been recommended to me by a few people, and I kept seeing it at bookstores - even those bookstores that only sell a handful of English-language books. But the fact it was alongside Danielle Steele and Da Vinci's Code* should have tipped me off.

I made it through 300-some pages, so 2/3 of the way through, before I decided enough was enough, that I had much more worthy books on my shelf, and I wasn't going to read it anymore. The problem was, I didn't like the book from about page 5! I was giving Friedman the benefit of the doubt. I thought he might change! Alas, I can be too patient of a reader sometimes.

Friedman is a columnist at the New York Times and I guess his The Lexus and the Olive Tree is considered (by some, at least) to be the definitive work on the Middle East. Well, all I can say is that I hope it is better-researched and more critical than The World is Flat. This book reads like a long, lengthy, never-ending magazine article. And, with all due respect to magazine writers, here we have an incredibly BAD magazine article. He has lengthy quotes from various players in the global market, but they are all CEOs and other people who have already bought into the "flat world" way of thinking. In other words, Friedman seems to have only spoken to people who already agree with his thesis. That just doesn't "do it" for me.

I need to start reading with sticky-tabs handy. There were many sentences and paragraphs that made me snort derisively, and I wish I could find one now to share with you. The amount of times Friedman pointed something out that was either blatantly obvious or blatantly one-sided just made me cringe. What? He's going to spend another 550 pages telling me businesses need to go global, that they can't do it all themselves and remain economically efficient? Tell me something I don't know. Or at least, tell me in a way that could possibly garner some debate. Maybe - here's a radical idea - maybe tell me what an anti-globalization activist thinks of his "flat world" inevitability. How about those countries who have yet been unable to jump onto the globalization bandwagon (for ex., swathes of Africa)? Oh, the world exists only of the United States, India, China and Bangladesh. I see. Am I really supposed to swallow the line that outsourcing American accounting to Indian accountants is good for everyone because now Indian accountants can stay in India and be employed (the fact that the Indian wage is a fraction of the American wage is discussed no further by Friedman other than as a statement of fact) while the American accountant can exercise his true talents of more complicated accounting (ie., rather than just straightening out Friedman's taxes once a year, he can sit down with Friedman and figure out how to best shelter Friedman's income from taxes). How about paying a bit of lip service to the other side of the coin? Isn't that what journalism should be about??? No, Friedman has already written off anyone who doesn't see globalization as the future. And that's just lazy writing, as far as I'm concerned.

If anyone knows a good book on globalization, please let me know. But this sure ain't it. Keep your $17 (what I wasted on it).

* OK, I'm sure Da Vinci's Code is a good book and shouldn't be tossed in with Danielle Steele. But it's just disgustingly everywhere!!!

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester
(Penguin Books, London: 2006)

First published by Viking in 2005.

READ: December 2006 - January 2007

There is no need to be an avid earthquake junkie to enjoy this book,* though it would be fair to say a passing interest in natural disasters helps. Former journalist Simon Winchester, who is trained in geology, has written an intensely compelling account of the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake was simply devastating. Striking early in the morning on April 18, 1906, it reduced a large part of San Francisco, one of the United States' most vibrant cities, to rubble. And what the earthquake did not destroy, the widespread fires that subsequently broke out finished off. Many thought the city would not be able to rebuild, but within a few months, it was back on its feet.

This is not just a social history of the people of San Francisco, detailing how peoples' lives were interrupted by the earthquake. While that in itself might be interesting enough, it certainly would not be adequate to sustain my interest for ~400 pages. Instead, in addition to bringing the 1906 earthquake and its reluctant participants to vivid life, Winchester also takes us on a fascinating geological tour. To research this book, he in fact traveled from just outside Albany in New York State, and straight across the southern United States to California. He then continued his travels northwards, through British Columbia up to Alaska (which is frequently hit by large quakes), and then back down through the Rockies and across the North American plain to his starting point in New York State. Along the way, he visits some of the most important geological hotspots, and tells us about their most interesting histories. Who knew, for instance, that a little tiny town in Missouri has suffered tens of thousands of earthquakes in the years since it was rocked by some quite violent ones in 1811, and that someday (in another 100 years or so) it will be hit by more big ones? Also, have you ever stopped to think that Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful is really just biding its time before, one day, it will turn into a super-volcano?

Set against the backdrop of the 1906 earthquake itself, Winchester tells us about these quirks of geology, and also takes us on a fascinating tour through the history and world of earthquake science, plate tectonics. This book should be called "Earthquake Science for Dummies (and It's Interesting, Too!)". Winchester knows his subject, and he gives just enough of a personal touch to every part of his subject (throwing in anecdotes, etc.) that what ought to be dry geological theories become quite interesting.

In fact, I suspect Winchester could make the phone book sound interesting.

* Unlike your beloved reviewer.

2007 Booklist

  1. A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

  2. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman (unfinished)

  3. English for Use in "The Way of Tea"

  4. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

  5. Looking for the Lost by Alan Booth

  6. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (re-read )

  7. Mightier Than the Sword by Tom Holt (Book 1: "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?")

  8. Wild Grass: China's Revolution from Below by Ian Johnson

  9. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

  10. Vintage Murakami by Haruki Murakami

  11. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  12. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

  13. Japan: Its History and Culture by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik

  14. Mightier Than the Sword by Tom Holt (Book 2: "My Hero")

  15. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

  16. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

  17. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada by Will Ferguson

  18. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

  19. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

  20. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

  21. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

  22. Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

  23. The Burma Road by Donovan Webster

  24. Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories edited by Roald Dahl

  25. JPod by Douglas Coupland

  26. Gods of Peace, Gods of War by Russell Bourne

  27. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

  28. Obasan by Joy Kogawa

  29. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  30. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

  31. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

  32. Hard-to-Answer Questions About Japan by Uchiike Hisataka and Michael Brase

  33. Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong

  34. Who Is Frances Rain? by Margaret Buffie