As with many other online trends, I’m a little late to the table on this one, but here goes…

Last month, I noticed that my friend Ben had posted his ‘My5Books’ to Twitter. He challenged me to do the same, and in typical fashion, I thought about it way too much and ended up posting nothing. I actually stared at my bookshelf for a solid 15 minutes that evening. But when it came time to condense that down to 140 characters, I believe I ended up making a sandwich and watching NCIS instead. Sometimes this whole ‘life of the mind’ thing is easily mistaken for ‘laziness’…

So after a few weeks, I thought I’d return to this challenge, and post a lengthy blog entry. I’m not particularly good at following instructions. 

The challenge, as I understood it, was to recommend five books in your field, without falling back on standard canonical texts. What are five things that you wish more people would read in order to understand your field, your ongoing research, and your thinking as it has developed over the years?

In no particular order, here are My5…

1. Alan Liu (2004) – ‘The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information’

I first came across Liu’s work while researching an essay on blogging, hypertext, and bricolage. I really couldn’t even tell you HOW I stumbled across it, but I remember adding a large blue hardcover to my stack’o’research at the library, and then tracking down my own copy a few months later. I’ve let friends borrow this book, I’ve used it to help structure a fourth-year seminar on labour and technology, and I’ve cited it in entirely too many different contexts.

What I love about this book is the way Liu takes a handful of genealogical strands from the 20th Century and weaves them together to identify patterns I’d never previously considered. Using the category of  ‘coolness’, he connects cultural practices (unified through this singular term) with labour histories and our relationship with the technologies all around us. At various times, the ‘distance’ between people and their tools has produced ‘hotter’ forms of cultural expression. In the 21st Century, he argues, the collapsing of older barriers (personal vs. professional, public vs. private, work vs. leisure, etc.) is not only producing markedly new forms of entertainment, it’s also transforming the role of ‘work’ in society.

Most of the second half of this book will be of little interest to many – he gets into issues of design that already date themselves. But those first 5-6 chapters are nothing short of brilliant. This was the first time I really started considering labour, technology, culture and society through the same lens.

 

2. Patricia O’Riley (2003) – “Technology, Culture and Socioeconomics: A Rhizoanalysis of Educational Discourses”

The trickiest part of this recommendation is to get people to look past the rather ridiculous title.

Again… I believe I stumbled across this one by accident in the SFU library. The title certainly couldn’t have sold me. I’ve never been all that into Deleuze or Guattari – their books seem unnecessarily opaque. Anyone claiming to do a ‘Rhizoanalysis’ should turn me off immediately. And yet… This book makes my Top 5 list.

O’Riley writes about the ways in which technology gets taught in schools, using her own experience to argue for a richer, more thoughtful approach to the subject. And if anyone wants to undermine her for drawing on the personal too heavily, she is more than ready to kick your ass with her detailed understanding of the field. She knows her Haraway, and she has a bone to pick. She is more than familiar with the field and its various genealogies, which gives her critiques some serious teeth.

More importantly, though, O’Riley writes with passion and great humour. This is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read – it’s actually funny. Very few authors can make this kind of thing as lively and engaging as O’Riley. And one of the most unique things she does is to invoke the Trickster figures of Coyote and Raven in her writing – discursive disruptions that interject ‘other voices’ when the text becomes dry, single-minded, or just plain confusing. These voices are welcome, even necessary additions to academic dissections of education and technology. And most importantly, they are clear reminders that MY writing needs to be unique. I absolutely cannot ‘use’ the voice of Raven and Coyote in MY writing… that would be absurd, rude, and unoriginal. O’Riley’s book forces me to think about my own modes of expression, and how I can make my own work more accessible, more disciplined, and more enjoyable.

 

3. Marshall McLuhan (1962) – “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”

Of COURSE there’s some McLuhan on my list…

And before you get upset that I’ve somehow ‘broken’ the rules of this game, let me explain: I don’t consider Gutenberg Galaxy to be ‘canonical’ in my field. Hell, I’m impressed if ANYONE actually READS any McLuhan from cover to cover.

At BEST, I’m guessing you read a few chapters from ‘Understanding Media’. AT BEST.

(This is like seeing the endless Foucault citations from the past 20 years. Everyone wants to show that they, too, read Foucault. Look again… they’re pointing to the same two chapters from Volume 1 of the History of Sexuality. The shortest book with the pithiest quotations. Foucault 1991, folks… Easiest way to look smart.)

Understanding Media is actually accessible and well-written when compared to The Gutenberg Galaxy. Gutenberg is deliberately messy, awkward, and dense. I have re-visited it many times over the past decade, and I’m still finding new ideas and meanings. By no means does this book ‘explain’ McLuhan and his work. Rather, it is (to my mind) the best argument for McLuhan’s intellectual ferocity. This was no charlatan, no corner-cutting media darling. This is the work of an astonishing mind, one that will inevitably challenge and confound the rest of us.

If you study Communication, Media, Culture or Education, there are certain names and titles you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) avoid. I look forward to a day when this title DOES become canon.

 

4. Richard Lanham (1993) – “The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts”

I include this book for three simple reasons:

  • Lanham approaches media and technology from the perspective of a Literature and Composition teacher, which I believe adds a much-needed voice in the field. Rather than focusing on the ‘tech’ side of media, Lanham is interested in actual, ‘creative’ uses of new media. How will we use new tools to tell stories, and make meaning, and share our thoughts with one another?
  • His own background allows him to discuss media and technology through the related lenses of linguistics, anthropology, education and the arts. He introduced me to the notion of ‘phatic communion’, and to the conditions of ‘hypertextuality’, and he made perfect sense the entire time.
  • Lanham devotes an entire chapter to dismantling Neil Postman’s elitist bullshit. To me, Postman now represents a very particular ‘phase’ in media studies. I use this term the same way you would say “Oh, yeah, she’s really into Ayn Rand right now… It’ll probably just be a Phase…”  or “Yeah, for a few years in my early teens, I went through a serious ‘Catcher in the Rye’ phase…” To the young student of media and culture, Postman makes an awful lot of sense. And then, hopefully, you grow out of him… Lanham articulated a lot of what I felt about Postman, but his tone in this chapter bordered on gleefully cruel. He stops short of questioning the sexual proclivities of Postman’s mother, but only barely…

 

5. Slavoj Žižek (2010) – “Living in the End Times”

Ok, so I’m cheating a little on this one.

First, it’s an unforgivably ‘new’ title for a list such as this. Second, I can’t really say that it’s in ‘my field’.

But I’m including it as a 5th entry, because I can’t think of another book I’ve read in the past 2 years that has been as provocative, hilarious, or original.

I went through my ‘Žižek phase’, and read as much of his work as I could find. But I think this might be my favourite, in large part because he tends to repeat himself with each new title. (This is a good thing… certain ideas and terms re-appear over many books, making each new title a little bigger and a littler easier to understand. More examples, more context… repetition isn’t always a bad thing.)

Where else do you get a brilliant analysis of the paradoxes facing global capital, AND the argument that Schindler’s List is just a re-make of Jurassic Park? The guy is insane, yet brilliant. I’ve found ways of borrowing from this work in a number of wildly different settings. Definitely an author that one ‘uses’ carefully… I can’t imagine doing ‘applied Žižek’… only implied Žižek…

 

 

So there you go. My long, rambling list.

What’s yours?