Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu (Knopf, $29)
Tim Wu has given us a new way to look at the internet’s growing power over our lives, said Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing.net. In his “erudite, energizing, outraging, funny, and thorough” history of the effort of businesses to colonize our attention, the author, a policy advocate and law professor, points out that media culture has been building toward its current web-enabled omnipresence for 150 years. For Wu, the breakthrough occurred in 1833, when 23-year-old Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun and proved that a newspaper could become hugely profitable by treating readers not as its customers but as mere eyeballs for paid advertising. Every new medium since, Wu says, has followed the path established by newspapers: launching with high ideals, then shifting priorities once its audience is recognized as a saleable commodity.
Wu’s early chapters become “a carnivalesque history of early American advertising,” said Tom Vanderbilt in The New Republic. The Sun, for example, attracted readers with its below-cost price and tall tales about winged creatures living on the moon, then made its money from the original snake-oil salesmen—peddlers of ostensible cure-alls that sometimes entailed the boiling of snakes. In the radio era, Amos ’n’ Andy delivered Super Bowl–size audiences every night for NBC and the show’s lucky sole sponsor, Pepsodent. But Wu’s larger story is about how each new medium gained a larger share of the customer’s mind space. He labels the 1960s and ’70s the era of “peak attention,” because so many people regularly paid heed to the programming on just a handful of TV networks. Not until the emergence of the web and social media, though, did we let businesses pursue their profit interest not just in our living rooms but also amid our routine interactions with friends and intimates.
Wu is “at his best” detailing how various web innovators have accelerated this conquest of human attention, said Steven Levy in The Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, his thoughts about how we might fight back prove “vague and implausible,” little more than wishful thinking that the popularity of online ad blockers signals an imminent 1960s-scale cultural revolt. Maybe he’s done enough just by informing us how little is now being paid for the time we waste on such junk, said Jacob Weisberg in The New York Review of Books. Advertisers on YouTube, we’re told, spend just 60 cents for an hour of our attention. Clearly, that’s “far less than it’s worth.”
Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest by Beth Macy (Little, Brown, $28)
Told in bare outline, the story of George and Willie Muse “sounds like a dark fairy tale,” said Colette Bancroft in the Tampa Bay Times. Sometime near the turn of the 20th century, the two young albino African-American brothers from Truevine, Va., were separated from their mother and enlisted as unpaid circus freaks who would be billed at various times over ensuing decades as Martians, Ecuadorian cannibals, and “nature’s greatest mistakes.” But while those details are confirmable, the full story is “too thorny and complicated” to be filed away as a straight manifestation of white cruelty, said Chris Vognar in The Dallas Morning News. Beth Macy’s new book tells a more complex tale of racism and exploitation. A longtime newspaper reporter, she “goes where the story leads.”
“Racism twists its way through every page of Truevine,” said Jeff Baker in The Wall Street Journal. Macy, who’s white, notes that the brothers were everywhere demeaned in news reports; even The New Yorker casually referred to them as “subnormal.” But the author also finds evidence that the Muses, instead of being kidnapped, were sold by their mother to a so-called freak hunter. If Harriet Muse did accept money to let her teenagers be whisked away to a traveling show, her decision “needs to be judged in context.” The family was poor, and the boys’ appearance probably made them unemployable outcasts. What’s more, she showed remarkable courage when the Ringing Bros. circus visited racist Roanoke, Va., in 1927 and she rescued them, then sued for their back pay.
The Muses even won that suit, said Edward Baptist in The New York Times. And when the brothers rejoined the circus a year later, they were paid well enough that they eventually retired in comfort. Still, a book like this always risks making the spectacle of past black suffering merely an occasion for “self-congratulatory pity.” In Macy’s wise account, a reader can at least recognize that the real freaks are the spectators, not the people who have been “violently forced onto the sideshow stage.”
Novel of the week
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin (Pantheon, $26)
The intrigue in Ha Jin’s “at once hilarious and sobering” eighth novel just keeps getting thicker, said Rebecca Steinitz in The Boston Globe. Feng Danlin, a reporter working in Queens, N.Y., for a Chinese news service, is bent on exposing his ex-wife, the author of a heavily hyped fictionalized memoir, as a liar and a hack. But he soon discovers that her book, which falsely represents that her second husband was a 9/11 victim, has the backing of both the Chinese and U.S. governments, and an array of powerful forces line up against him. The Boat Rocker is not the finest work we’ve seen from Ha Jin, a former National Book Award winner, said Julia Klein in the Chicago Tribune. “Its plot turns seem both unlikely and cynical,” and its dialogue “can be stiffly political.” Still, the author’s genuine anger about the power of governments to destroy individual lives redeems the story’s weaker moments. In “the Orwellian world” of this novel, one slip-up can bring a man of principle “perilously close to drowning.”