Cogent and thoughtful, if nostalgic, essays urging our attention not to iPads and smartphones but to art.

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CHANGING THE SUBJECT

ART AND ATTENTION IN THE INTERNET AGE

A literary critic questions the effect of digital technology on minds, literature, and creativity.

Although he uses computers, email, and GPS, Birkerts (The Other Walk: Essays, 2011, etc.), director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and editor of the literary journal AGNI at Boston University, wonders how those technologies have changed both the content they convey and users’ connections to “the unmediated world…are these fabulous gains of access and ease really given without a counterbalancing sacrifice?” That choice of the word “sacrifice” reflects the author’s suspicion, reiterated in many of these previously published essays, that “new technologies and behaviors have a way of encroaching almost visibly” to change the way we think—usually for the worst. When we use a search engine, he asserts, “we give over any real sense of control over our contexts…making ourselves that much more fit to be nodes in a larger system, that much less our independent selves.” When we use GPS, we risk “floating weightlessly from here to there without a strong notion of origins or destination.” Birkerts points to studies in neuroscience that find “short-term adaptations and neural reconfigurings” as a result of “digital expansion.” Long-term effects, he acknowledges, are still unknown. The author worries, especially about the possibility that imagination may become compromised “every time another digital prosthesis appears and puts another thin layer of sheathing between ourselves and the essential givens of our existence.” He also worries that these prostheses give us a skewed sense of agency and power; in his opinion, agency is being diminished: “If being a Luddite has come to mean refusing to rubber-stamp without questioning everything that passes for progress, then where do I sign up?” Following the visual paths of paintings, listening intently to a musical composition, and reading books, he insists, are analogous to prayer.

Cogent and thoughtful, if nostalgic, essays urging our attention not to iPads and smartphones but to art.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-55597-721-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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