Category Archives: 3 Stars

3/5 is my default, for “not too good, not too bad.” If a book is decent but isn’t my cup of tea, it’ll probably end up here. If it *is* my cup of tea but the writing feels stilted, it’ll end up here. If I ever say to myself “I don’t care what happens to these people” then this is automatically the highest the book can go, I don’t care if James Joyce quarkin’ wrote it.

“To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski

Cover of To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

There’s something deliciously cynical about seeing a bridge fall and saying, “History will vindicate me.”

The details, oh, the details. Why is it that we do not check them more carefully? For they can send innocent readers into the bowels of libraries, where madmen mug books, and they can send innocent citizens to their deaths in cracked airplanes and on shaky skywalks.

I’ll admit some bias in picking up this book; I’m entering college next year as an intended dual major in engineering and art, and a book subtitled “The Role of Failure in Successful Design” was just too good to pass up. I read To Engineer is Human with the intention of gleaning a few possibly life-saving lessons about the queer field I’m entering – and although Petroski’s pedigree is in civil engineering, many of his points are important across the board.

That being said, Petroski’s book may not be as suitable for the layman as he originally desired. There were several parts where I found myself saying, “I’d be lost if it weren’t for the fact that I know about all this stuff already.” The anecdotes are a bit hit-or-miss, the best one probably being the story of the Crystal Palace.

Although the effect is overall limited, the book falls into that all-too-familiar rut where the science outweighs the human effect on the reader. Petroski definitely relates his content all back eventually, but getting up to there is daunting.

(It doesn’t help that there’s one chapter basically ranting about how errors in computer design are going to be the bogeyman of the twenty-first century – like, why not call in some civil engineering experts to help design the system? Serious bro points lost with this Linux geek.)

A good and informative read for aspiring engineers (and maybe practising ones). Maybe a bit too intense for the average Joe.

But! For those of you who are in the civil engineering purview of interest, check out the related content links.

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May 30: “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, Chris Hedges

Book cover of

But that meaning certainly isn’t pretty.

Rating: 3 / 5

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning has a title that confused me at first – generally speaking, ‘meaning’ has a positive connotation, and so I expected a pro-war account. Truth be told, it’s not one hundred percent clear what Hedges’ thoughts on war are in the end, and perhaps that’s the way it is meant to be: A confused mess, with lines of contradictory coherency in every chapter.

But a good 80 percent of the book is detailing the horrors of war, horrors that Chris Hedges encountered during his time as a wartime journalist – so we may believe him to be an addict of war, just as others are an addict of drugs. It is a comparison he himself makes several times in the book. Take a look at the end of the first chapter:

During a lull [in the gunfire] I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And, like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people after such an experience would learn to stay away. I was hooked.

A great example of the definitely journalistic slant of the writing style – punctual sentences, flowing vocabulary – although it doesn’t contain the many references to classic works of literature like Shakespeare and the Aeneid that the book should also be known for.

Hedges’ ideas on war are interesting, and in many places very insightful – I couldn’t help but think about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as he talked about the link between a wartime scenario and the ensuant rise in sexual perversion, both on the sides of the soldiers and their patriotic [like “meaning”, here that word does not have a positive connotation] citizens back at home.

The thing that keeps me from rating this book higher, however, is that the structuring is horrendous – maybe there’s some underlying pattern I’m not seeing here, but the book reads like a halting mess of personal recounts of torture and death, philosophical meanderings, and the occasional one-on-one verbal confrontations that reveal Hedges’ pedigree as a journalist, but impress less in the form of a book.

There is also the question of background knowledge on the events being talked about – for a national bestseller, Chris Hedges sure didn’t spend much time explaining the military and political fiascos he found himself in, and I doubt the layman has enough knowledge of the various genocides that took place in the Eastern European countries to fit everything into a solid historical framework without doing outside research. (It is now on my list to do that outside research later, of course.)

All in all: Great ideas, great content, and a strong, mostly anti-war message, but it relies on the reader knowing a lot about the history of international conflicts in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the structure is tangled to say the least. If you want to get the most out of this book, do some research on Israel and the Balkans first.