P.S.S. (Popular Science Sucks)

Sometime last year I read The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. It’s a somewhat interesting popular science book about the perceptual limitations of the modern worldview and its consequences on the world: for example, limitations imposed by the imposition of time measured by clocks, limitations on freedom by the constriction placed by property, and so on. It’s basically interesting tidbits and anecdotes connected together by various themes.

It’s pretty well-written but is basically just a vehicle for sharing those tidbits and anecdotes. My big frustration is when it goes into the issues of environmental devastation but only mentions capitalism kind of near the end of the book and then just stops there. So yeah, capitalism sucks, but what else should we be trying? Any ideas on that front? No? Okay then, guess we’re just screwed.

Honestly, I’m giving up on reading non-fiction recommendations from journalists and book reviewers, at least for books that cover technical subjects. I’m starting to think journalists are actually morons. “This book is incredible, this book blew my mind, I learned so much” etc. Then I pick it up and it turns out to be the kind of popular science book that’s decently written but intellectually light and covers too much of the writer’s personal experiences. Look, if I wanted personal crap in non-fiction I’d read a memoir, just give me the freaking science.

First it was Too Dumb for Democracy, then it was The Reality Bubble. And now I’m three for three in disappointment for popular science books with Languages Are Good For Us by Sophie Hardach. It’s about, uh, it’s actually kind of hard to explain because it goes all over the place. I guess it’s an overview of how humans use language and writing, but not in any systematic sense. It basically covers interesting language stuff from the author’s research interests.

And don’t get me wrong, there actually is interesting stuff here that I didn’t know about before or never looked into too deeply. It covers the development and use of cuneiform writing as well as the story of its decipherment, it examines the story of Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinche and her role in the conquest of the Aztecs, it covers the creation of the secret language Unserdeutsch by children who spoke the Tok Pisin creole but were forced to speak only German at missionary boarding school, and maybe some other stuff I’m forgetting.

But there’s also stuff in there that I don’t really care about and I can’t even justify as forming necessary connective tissue in the book since the book doesn’t really have an intellectual framework. There’s a chapter about how the word “kamunun” in Akkadian over the millennia became “cumin” in English and the networks of trade by which the spice was spread around the world, there’s a part about how multilingual London’s children are which contains a lament from the German immigrant author about Brexit, there’s another chapter about the Eskimo-Aleut language family which mentions the author’s fears over COVID-19 and her wish that she could make a research trip to Canada instead of just reading about these languages, there’s a whole thing about Japanese sensitivity to the seasons and their relationship to seasonal foods which comes across to me as too Orientalist.

So if I take the stuff that I liked and balance it against stuff that I was lukewarm on then my final opinion on this book is that I wish I’d read something more technical about languages. Anyway, that’s it, no more popular science books for me.

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