Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

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Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

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Review: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetTubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Near the end of the book, the author realizes that he’s flown all over the world to essentially look at corrugated steel boxes in nondescript warehouses and feels a moment of despair; for me, it’s the moment that points out that while “Tubes” is lofty in its aim, it’s uneven in its execution. Essentially, we really are reading a travelogue about a guy wandering around the world to visit warehouses and talk to the people who work there. For the most part, it’s rather mundane, but the book redeems itself with poetic musings about what the Internet really is, how we perceive it, and the massive amount of unseen infrastructure that go into maintaining it.

It’s a neat idea; where is the Internet? And certain aspects of it are undeniably cool, such as the undersea transoceanic cables that connect America to Europe to Africa (look up a picture if you’ve never heard of these, they are literally these insanely long cables running across the ocean). But while author Andrew Blum continually defends his mission of “wanting to visit the Internet” to the skeptical, the reality is that finding the Internet’s physical structure is much like finding the man behind the curtain. Certainly, there is expertise and skill on display. There is brilliance woven into and through the various component pieces. But what they form is something much more impressive than the physical reality. Because the physical reality tends to be a steel box with a snake’s nest of cables everywhere.

Blum’s musings on the Internet and the genesis for his quest are the book’s highlights and the question he works to answer is provocative; how much time do any of us actually spend thinking about the physical reality of this crazy network we’ve assembled? It’s exciting to consider the scope. But the reality is as mundane as the scope itself is impressive and “Tubes” loses steam when we and the author realize that. Even so, it’s a quick enough read and worth a bit of wandering for those that are curious.

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Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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Review: Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era

Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft EraPride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era by John Heilemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being “a thing” in the news for a while. But then, like many “a things,” it just sort of went away, didn’t it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, “wait, didn’t Microsoft lose that case? Weren’t they supposed to be broken up? Why didn’t that ever happen?”

The book itself is good; Heilemann’s writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham’s entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There’s no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that’s because we didn’t yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it’s been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?

In the end, if you’re looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there’s enough information here to sate your hunger. But you’ll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we’ve come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it’s fun to see the “who’s who” mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn’t yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.

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Review: Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection

Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection by Sarah Andersen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fun collection of comic strips that are perfect for the introverted, self-conscious, and generally weird among us (so, you know, basically everyone who bothers to read online book reviews!) The breezy visuals contrast well with the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty that are the topics of most (though not all) of the strips, but this isn’t a “collection of despair.” You’ll laugh at most of them, and there are also several that extol the virtues of being cozy. This is very much a “feel-good” collection. I’ve been a fan of the online version of these comics for a while now and I’m looking forward to more of the author’s work; this collection in particular really gives me a sense that Sarah Andersen is a talent to watch. All in all, highly recommended.

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Review: World of WarCraft: Illidan

Illidan: World of WarcraftIllidan: World of Warcraft by William King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was but a stripling, I used to dive into fantasy books and read them (devour them, really) in a single sitting. It was the best feeling in the world, to be so absorbed into a book that you only pull yourself away to change position on your bed or to take a bathroom back before diving right back into it. It’s a sort of reading I don’t get to do as often these days, whether because reading over one’s lunch break necessitates keeping one eye on the clock so you’re not late or because prolonged exposure to the Internet has shortened my attention span to the point where I can only dive in the shallowest of intellectual waters.

Regardless, “Illidan” was a return to those early days. I read it cover to cover and had a great time while I did.

Let me get a few things out of the way, however. Yes, this is a video game fiction tie-in novel. No, it doesn’t actually pass my personal litmus test for tie-in fiction (that the story be accessible enough that you can read it and enjoy it without being a fan of the game). Yes, that makes me horrifically inconsistent. No, I don’t care, because I’m not getting paid to do this and if you want foolish consistency, go find a hobgoblin. This book is for fans of the game. If you haven’t played World of WarCraft, particularly if you haven’t played the first expansion “the Burning Crusade,” you can skip this one. It’s an amazing WarCraft novel, but it’s a middling fantasy novel. There are plenty of other middling fantasy novels out there; I’ve even read and reviewed some of them. Feel free to keep scrolling.

For those that are still here, as I said, I loved this book. It’s the best damn WarCraft novel yet to be published; let me explain why.

Let’s rewind to 2007. It was a different era, to be certain. Bush II was still destroying the country and we were all blissfully unaware that the Great Recession was just around the corner. World of WarCraft had begun to measure its success as a video game not in how many units had been sold or how many subscribers were playing, but by its body count of how many players were so enthralled that they died playing it because they forgot to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom. When the Burning Crusade expansion was launched, we, the brave heroes of Azeroth, fought off a demonic invasion and plunged through the Dark Portal into the strange realm of Outland. After fighting through the demonic invasion, we . . . then proceeded to wage war against the minions of a guy whose in-game class was entirely devoted to hunting and killing demons, a guy who’d always been, in the previous WarCraft game, a misunderstood anti-hero who, while often seeming a villain, usually was TRYING to do the right thing. Wait, what?

In the years since, the developers at Blizzard have acknowledged that the story in the Burning Crusade expansion was thin. And it was, indeed, paper thin. Characters that were playable heroes and well liked in the previous game (WarCraft III) are suddenly villains and raid bosses, for seemingly no reason better than “just ’cause.” What could have been a tragic and compelling story (having to fight those characters despite identifying with them) instead becomes a joke when the answer to the question “why are we killing these guys” is “because we want their stuff.” A thin story, indeed, and you can tell the lesson was taken to heart because the next expansion went out of its way to give you reasons to want to take down its final boss, the Lich King.

So, “Illidan” the book creates a storyline about what’s happening with the pseudo-final boss of the Burning Crusade to explain what he was doing while waiting around for us to kill him. It also takes several of the more strange elements that went unresolved in the game storyline and creates compelling justifications for them, in particular explaining why, despite the fact that we saw Illidan training new demon hunters, we only ever encounter one of those demon hunters as a raid boss.

The fact that the book manages to take that old game experience and create a new, interesting context feels, well, rather magical. Rationally, I know that this is all retcon; a complicated bit of storytelling judo to try and make a narrative out of the tangled, inconsistent disjointed experience of the original game narrative. However, even though I know it’s all retcon and I know that the game designers weren’t planning any of this when they made that storyline, “Illidan” manages to create explanations that feel amazingly seamless. It fits together like a puzzle piece and the revelations have actually improved my memories of that ancient expansion. It felt rather magical, honestly.

There are still plenty of flaws in the book. Although the book spends most of its time on its own narrative, the beginning and ending are set to the events of WarCraft III and the Black Temple raid, and you can absolutely feel the shift when the game narrative takes the driver seat, and not for the better. The dialogue for WarCraft III in particular has aged horrifically and feels stilted and unnatural. Unfortunately, no amount of word judo can make those pieces fit into the puzzle, but thankfully they’re rather rare.

So while Illidan doesn’t begin or end on a strong footing, it still manages to satisfy when allowed to tell its own story. It does an amazing job of building excitement for the upcoming Legion expansion and in particular makes me eager to play the new demon hunter class. And so, while it has plenty of flaws and is by no means a perfect book on its own, I can’t help but feel that this is the best WarCraft book I’ve read. As for the rating and how I justify this one, we’ll just say that we’re grading on a curve.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution

Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan SolutionGetting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had the power to make everyone read one book, I think I might spend that power on this book. On the surface, it might seem an odd choice. Fred Rich’s writing style won’t move anyone to tears with descriptions of awesome beauty or powerful prose. I’d even go as far as to say it’s a bit of a textbook. And yet. And yet. Because despite the back-handed nature of this introduction, I’m about to launch into one hell of a compliment.

The ideas in this book are amazing. Rich’s argument about the “Great Estrangement,” as he called it, had me nodding along and muttering “yeah, that’s a really good point” throughout the book. It made me realize that I’m as guilty as anyone of having a short-term view of politics and political history. I may not be strident about it, but I’d fallen into the partisan rift. Rich reminded me that conservation USED to be a core tenet of conservatism, and likely still lingers just below the surface. It was a Republican that gave us the EPA, after all (even if that Republican was Nixon). Teddy Roosevelt is a legend for his dedication to conservation; the roots are there. The bones are there. It’s only recently that this “drill, baby, drill” inanity has taken root.

Rich pulls no punches. He takes the left to task for alienating the right, for making it easy for Green to be dismissed. He argues that Greens have allowed their base to be broad, but shallow; that is, many people say the environment is important, but it’s not on on the top of many voters’ list of priorities. Most of all, however, he argues that Green lost its focus. He points to other movements that have been successful and credits at least some of that success to their laser-focus on their core issue: the Civil Rights Movement and the NRA are (perhaps oddly) his two best examples and as someone who continually despairs at the sense that the NRA and the gun lobby are unstoppable, it’s hard not to agree with that point.

Rich’s core argument is that we need to get back to the Center, what he calls “Center Green.” It’s a position I’ve gravitated towards my entire life, the idea that you should persuade rather than threaten, that it’s more important to be a good ambassador than a ferocious militant. I remain convinced that PETA has done more harm than good, even if their hearts are in the right place, simply because their various stunts have created a reaction in people that is “those PETA people are assholes and I don’t like them, therefore I do not support their position.” People really do shoot the messenger; it’s human nature.

Rich argues that we need to change that and that Green needs to deploy all the tools in its kit to make it happen. We need more focus on the positive work that Green has done (remember acid rain? The impending destruction of the ozone layer?) and less apocalyptic doomsaying. We need to be willing to employ language that many progressives are uncomfortable with, but would be undeniably effective in convincing conservatives to join the cause, such as making environmentalism a moral issue. The trend right now is that the facts should speak for themselves, but the reality is that the facts aren’t enough. People are emotional and can be appealed to emotionally, and it’s not as though there isn’t plenty to be emotional about when it comes to talking about the beauty of the environment and its importance in the lives of people.

Most of all, as I read the book, I kept thinking back to a particular family member of mine. He and I don’t talk politics, ever, but I know he’s as much to the right as I am to the left. But he was the one who taught me how to hike, he taught me how to navigate by map and compass, he put together scavenger hunts for me out in the wood, and he, more than anyone else, shared such an enthusiastic love for the outdoors that I couldn’t help but follow in his example. And yet the modern Green movement has made no room under its tent for a person like him. It has done nothing to make him feel welcome. Here’s the man who is basically my environmental mentor and yet the modern Green movement does not want him, because his politics are different.

Rich argues that needs to change. Green needs to be a center issue, not a progressive one, because that’s the only way anything will every get done. It’s the only way we’re ever going to succeed; all the greatest achievements in environmentalism’s history were done by reaching across the aisle and finding common cause. And although it might seem impossible to imagine in an era of Trumpism, I think that we can rediscover the ability to work together. And this book was instrumental in helping me arrive at that conclusion. I’m ready to work towards Center Green. And I think that, if you read this book, you will most likely feel the same.

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Review: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every TimeThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Must read. “The Confidence Game” is one of those books that you’ll find yourself referring back to, over and over, reflecting on the lessons contained within and how you can apply them to your own life. But far from being a self-help book or a guide on how not to get scammed, it’s also intensely fascinating and full of history and psychology. It’s very likely that you’ll experience a bout of intense cynicism after reading it, however; I couldn’t help but reflect on the times when I might have fallen for a scam myself (usually the “I need a few bucks to get home” variety). And of course, I wonder about all the possible scams that I might have encountered without even realizing it, which is more than a little troubling.

Regardless, “the Confidence Game” is as alluring and engaging as any good con artist might be. It’s the kind of book that stays with you, that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it, and that’s as much a testament to Konnikova’s good writing style as it is the importance of the subject itself. And if it helps you avoid a scam in the future; well, that’s just a bonus. Even if the research suggests that overestimating our abilities makes us more likely to fall for a scam, so it’s possible you might actually be more likely to be scammed after reading this book. Such is the dark web that the con artist weaves. Regardless, you should still read the book.

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