Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Review of Five, Free Nonfiction iBooks Selections

A random sampling of a few fee-less downloads -- there’s some good, some bad and some WTF. 

Last Christmas, my beautiful, remarkable and outstanding girlfriend of half a decade bought me an iPad. Next to the Sega Genesis I got Christmas of 1992, it’s easily the most amazing Jesus Day gift I have ever received. Yes, even better than the Dr. Dreadful make-your-own gummy set I got XMAS 1993 and the PlayStation 1 version of “Alien Trilogy” Santa brought me in 1998, even though I only had a Saturn at the time.

Granted, I am a bit late to the party -- if I am not mistaken, the iPad first hit store shelves in 2010 -- and while in the past I have displayed a certain distaste for a certain deceased, high-ranking Apple executive, I have to say I am really wowed by the device. Sure, I may not be able to stick SD cards inside it and upload videos from my gloriously vintage Kodak Zi8 like I can with a laptop (nor can I use it to play Adobe-fueled Super NES in-browser applications, unfortunately), but holy hell, does it do everything else and then some. It’s so portable and lightweight, and there’s a bajillion apps to tinker around with -- really, it wasn’t until I got my hands on the unit that I truly understood the majesty of mobile technology. The Internet and all of its various wonders can ALWAYS be by my side now, and as such, the much loathed adversary known as circumstantial ennui has all but been slain and buried.

Of course, we’ve been an a trajectory towards complete media atomization for awhile now. For years, I’ve eschewed DVD movies for streaming content on Netflix and Hulu, and instead of even bothering with CDs, I just hop on over to YouTube and play whatever the hell I want, just as long as it isn’t something made by Prince. Perhaps the biggest epiphany I have experienced as a post-tablet human being, however, is realizing just how much of an anachronism paper media is. As a dude who loves, loves, LOVES to read, it never dawned on me just how outmoded the idea of books really are -- those heavy, tangible beasts could EASILY be shrunken down into downloadable form, with one little USB card holding entire libraries worth of material. Of course, I never really bought into the eBook hullabaloo as a PC user, because who wants to lay in bed with a computer and read all of that weirdly formatted text and possibly irradiate their reproductive organs? Even as smartphone technology made leaps and bounds, it just seemed like the old school hardback and softback approach was still the best way to enjoy the written word. Even on an iPhone, the text is just way to small, and it’s pretty hard to situate yourself in full-on read mode while holding something about the same size and weight as a billfold.

However, with the tablet, you can FINALLY read electronic media in a fashion virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. And with literally one consumer device, you have access to basically every written text that has been or ever will be produced, and you can get access to it in just seconds. With devices like the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook, humanity has finally triumphed over what has been one of our most venerable oppressors -- the book shelf. Personally, I am now using my vacant racks to hold towels, and irony of ironies, a fuck-ton of spiral bound notebooks I just have lying around.

While you can purchase pretty much anything you want via Apple’s proprietary iBooks store, what’s the fun in that? Thus far, my iPad library is stuffed to the brim with material that didn’t cost me a dadgum dime, and I’ve had quite the diverse literary experience over the past half year. Unsurprisingly, most of the stuff in the free nonfiction section is relegated to older stuff that has lapsed into the public domain (there’s at least 40 different versions of “The Prince” on there, I swear) but there is also some fairly modern-ish works in the mix too. Ever the one with a desire to expand my knowledge of the world and its rich histories via the written word, I picked five completely random works from the “free section” the day after Christmas and slogged my way through them over the course of winter and spring. So, what titles did I churn through, and what were my general impressions of said works? Well, I am glad you asked, guys …

Title Number One:
“The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. du Bois (1904)

Key Quote: He had emerged from slavery, not the worst slavery in the world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable, rather a slavery that had here and there something of kindliness, fidelity and happiness - but without slavery, which, so far as human aspiration and desert were concerned, classed the black man and the ox together.

Next to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that does such an outstanding job of describing the true black experience in America. Du Bois -- basically, the Ken to Booker T. Washington’s Ryu -- does a bang-up job here describing the core problem African-Americans face in U.S. society, a cultural “double consciousness” -- that being, the state of having to live as both self and the stereotypical depiction of self held by others -- which also ties into a secondary identity conflict of being American citizens and freed black men and women. The end result, he said, is a self-defeating social complex that prevents blacks from ever thinking about gaining a foothold in the economic rat race against the whites -- an ingrained cultural problem that he said no amount of legislation can truly correct.

Ultimately, “The Souls of Black Folk” is a tale of two books. The first half is dedicated to Du Bois’ thoughts on academia, and why education -- not enfranchisement -- is the key to black advancement. The second half might just be the greatest sociocultural analysis of black America written before or since, as Du Bois richly describes the post-emancipation rural south and how the after-effects of slavery have created, rather unintentionally, a reactionary culture of sexual looseness, vice, violence and shiftlessness. Ominously citing race as “the problem of the 20th century,” Du Bois neither seeks excuses nor pinpoints any true answers as to the emerging intra-community problems, which as apparent by any cable news broadcast, is still just as much a riddle today as it was pre-World War I.

This is just a stellar account of how a cultural neurosis develops, and as an anthropological work -- Du Bois even explains in great detail how today’s black pastors are practically carbon copies of their African shaman forefathers -- it’s just about the best of its type. With Du Bois bemoaning the abject failure of the Freedman’s Bureau social programming after the Civil War, you just have to pinch yourself to recall that this was a book written in 1904, not 1994. Don’t let the copyright date fool you; for those who truly seek to understand contemporary American culture, this is an absolute must-read.


Title Number Two:
“The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

Key Quote: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with awe … the bourgeoisie has torn family away from its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” 

Although, irony of ironies, “The Communist Manifesto” has been a public domain offering for more than a century, I never really got around to reading the screed, despite its ubiquity and the fact that it’s really more of a pamphlet than a real book (it’s basically the cliff notes version of “Das Kapital,” which I promise, I will read at some point before I turn 80.)

There is no denying the significance of this treaty, regardless of your political standing. Simply put, no treatise of any kind has done so much globally as what “The Communist Manifesto” did. Sure, you could rightly argue that The Holy Bible and the Koran have had a greater impact, but those tracts are also hundreds-times the size of Marx and Engels’ work. Based on sheer cover-to-cover word count, this book is undeniably the most influential in human history.

Obviously, everybody is going to have their own thoughts on the morality/immorality of communism as a political ideal, so it’s kind of a moot point to even consider reviewing its contents. Personally, I think it’s a jumble of interesting -- if not flat out undeniable -- concepts, including its central thesis that structural classism has been the inherent problem of humanity from which all other cultural maladies arise. While the proposed solutions of centralized state banks and calls for “industrial armies” may not exactly float your boat, there’s really no reason to at least flip through “The Communist Manifesto” once, if nothing else to understand what all of those kids at your college are misquoting.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? Since it’s a historically important work and its only a few pages long, why not?

Title Number Three:
“The Hacker Crackdown:  Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier” by Bruce Sterling (1992)

Key Quote: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … that tension will not go away.” 

As one of the first real “e-books,” Sterling’s “The Hacker Crackdown” is a fairly biased, yet gripping, look at the birth of cyber-crime … or cyber-activism, or cyber-social-justice, or however the hell you choose to reflect on what the folks at Anonymous are up to these days.

The author, who is actually one of the titans of cyberpunk fiction, does a surprisingly thorough job explaining not only the emergence of the “hacker” subculture in the 1980s, but really, the entire history of telecommunications security. Written just a few years after the 1990 MLK Day AT&T crash -- which led to the much-maligned Operation Sundevil federal stings, including such whimsical episodes as the infamous raid on Steve Jackson Games -- Sterling spends the bulk of the book focused on the trial of Craig Neidorf, who was starring down a 31-year prison sentence for leaking an E911 document … which legal defense successfully tagged as a document costing no more than $13 dollars, while far more detailed information on the AT&T cyber security systems were already out in the public eye.

It’s a lengthy book, and it’s obvious which side of the aisle Sterling sits on, but as an overall literary experience, I really enjoyed it. It’s a very good primer on the roots of “hacktivism,” and there’s a ton of weird shit you will learn along the way, like how Alexander Graham Bell had an early telephone prototype featuring a real human ear, and how protesters once stuck it to Southern Bell by reconnecting random phone calls to sex lines. It may not sound like something you would ordinarily be interested in, but with Sterling’s research and smooth delivery, it becomes a surprisingly engrossing little read.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? It’s going to take you a while, but for what it is worth, it is really well-written and enjoyable throughout. Give the first chapter a read, and you will know whether or not the rest of the book is your cup ‘o tea.

Title Number Four:
“The Disasters Darwinism Brought to Humanity” by Harun Yahiya (2001)

KEY QUOTE: “Now, if someone told you that the television in your room was formed as a result of chance, that all its atoms just happened to come together and make up this device that produces an image, what would you think? How can atoms do what thousands of people can not?” 

When it comes to anti-evolution agitprop, we all like to take turns beating up on the Christians. However, as apparent by the works of Turkish apologist Harun Yahiya (the pen name of guru Adnan Oktar, whose other claims to fame include Holocaust denial screeds and literally trying to restore the Caliphate in Ankara) it’s quite clear that some Islamists ain’t taking it from this Darwin fellow laying down, neither.

As you would expect, the book is pretty much your standard tirade against materialist philosophy, reverting to the tried-and-true “don’t you know that Darwinism always leads to social Darwinism?” chestnut. Per Yahiya, Darwinism is the root cause of virtually every ill humanity experienced in the 20th century, from Jim Crow laws in the American South to the rise of Nazism in Germany to the mega-death perpetrated by Communist regimes throughout Europe and Asia. And oh yeah, capitalism itself is actually the perfect social Darwinism state, which means it is … worse than all the other shit he was talking about earlier? To be honest with you, I’m not really sure what kind of message Oktar is trying to send on that one.

Granted, you will learn some fairly interesting things along the way (the saga of Ota Benga and the hilariously ironically-named Carleton Coon are the standouts), but for the most part, there really isn’t anything in this one you haven’t heard from somewhere else, even if the lines of scripture are yanked from a different holy book. Amid all of Yahya’s accusations that Mendel’s discoveries invalidate Darwinism and that micro-evolution is simply unproven, you’re getting precious little new in the way of creationism rhetoric -- I’d stick with the abridged and easier-to-digest Jack Chick tract, if I were you.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? Eh, not really.

Title Number Five:
“Liberalism and the Social Problem” by Winston Churchill (1909)

KEY QUOTE: “The character of the organization of human society is dual. Man is at once a unique being and a gregarious animal. For some purposes, he must be a collectivist, for others he is, and he will for all time remain, an individualist.”

No matter your thoughts on conservatism or even the man himself, there is no denying that Winston Churchill was one hell of an orator. In fact, I would feel confident listing his autobiography “The Second World War” as arguably the third best book ever written about humanity’s most compelling event, with only Keegan’s phenomenal book of the same name and Shirer’s unparalleled “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” as its superiors on the subject.

Alas, I cannot say I was a big fan of “Liberalism and the Social Problem,” a collection of speeches and essays from the early 20th century first published n 1909. Indeed, Churchill is ever the skillful penman, but to be frank, I just could not find myself getting absorbed in his myriad rants about unions, mining legislation and governmental pension plans.

As a whole, it does a fairly serviceable job of explaining Churchill’s proto-neo-con social policy philosophy, but my goodness, do you have to slog through a lot of fat before you get to the all-too-teensy cuts of meat. While it’s always fun to hear Churchill rail against socialism and promote liberalism with the gusto of a crank-snorting Tea Partier, it never really feels like any of the essays collected in this volume do an adequate job of explaining his hybrid neo-liberalism model. I mean, yeah, bits and pieces of it are embedded throughout the transcripts, but it never really comes together in a satisfactory narrative. In fact, that’s really the big problem with the entire book -- it’s one of the premier story tellers of the 20th century, without any real story to tell. Even if you are hardcore Thatcher conservative, I have a hard time believing anyone will find this lengthy collection a joyful read.


And on top of that, there are literally thousands of other free-to-download literary works on the service, in addition to a plethora of titles that cost 99 cents that I am still too cheap to pick up. Along with my girlfriend's Amazon account that I hack into sometimes my very own Kindle Unlimited account that I pay for with my own money, I'm also privy to a ton of additional free titles via their service, which includes some real heavy hitters from the likes of Fromm and Orwell. While I will always love the scent of a Barnes and Noble store, the frank reality is that this is going to be the way to read from here on out, and me and my wallet couldn't be happier. The revolution has indeed been digitialized folks, and if you love to read, you best hop on the iBandwagon soon.


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