Tag Archives: book

Talking to Strangers

I met a man once. He was tall and dark, with straight hair in parting on his left side. His smooth, fair skin contrasted with his choice of a dark, tailored suit. He rarely wore a tie, but in a small concession to whimsy his cuff links bore small images of Daffy Duck. When anyone noticed, he’d laugh it off, saying they were a gift from his youngest.

Sat in his office on the fifteenth floor of an anonymous office block in the City of London he had a realisation, one that would change his life forever.

The man is entirely fictional. But the last two paragraphs are real. So is this one. And you had to read them to get to the forth paragraph which is where, if you’re lucky, I might finally get to the point.

And the point is this.

There are a lot of words and not a lot to say. And that is my problem with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.”

It’s not that it’s bad. It’s easy to follow and read. It’s well written. There are some good ideas.

The difficulty is that it’s several hundred pages long, yet there are not several hundred pages worth of ideas. Each chapter uncovers a concept and then beats all the fun out of it by giving the life story of various people by way of an example.

It’s a fine structure but, wow, the ratio of words to ideas is way out of whack.

How to

“If you convert [your car] to run on copies of this book instead of gas, it will burn through 30,000 words per minute, several dozen times faster than the word consumption of a typical human.”

If you thought that “How to“, the follow-up to “What if…” would be more practical, then you’d be wrong.

Whether it’s chasing a tornado without getting up from your couch or moving your house with jet engines, Munroe takes another fun, inventive journey through science and maths. While it doesn’t quite hang together as well as “What if,” it still manages to amuse, educate1 and entertain.

There are so many good bits that it’s difficult to mention even a few highlights, but I think possibly my favourite part is where he fails to faze Colonel Chris Hadfield, even when asked how to land a space shuttle that’s attached to the carrier aircraft (response: “Easy peasy”).

If you’re at all interested in science or engineering, you should read this book (if you haven’t already). Just — please — don’t take the advice literally.


  1. I mean, not directly. You’re unlikely to have an exam where you need to know how to build a lava moat. But the thought-process in getting a serious answer to an absurd question absolutely has value. ↩︎

Come Again

I learned about this book on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP!). One of my favourite nineties comedy performers interviewing one of my favourite two-thousands comedy performers. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not entirely impartial; I was predisposed to like “Come Again.”

Webb’s first book was a kind of a memoir. This is a novel. I’m pretty much the perfect demographic. The lead character went to an English university in the early nineties to study Computer Science. Even though it was a different university, so much was familiar.

Is it well written and researched or just lazy nostalgia?

I think that’s the question for the book as a whole. It’s a quick, unchallenging read. The writing is functional and it’s structured to included a few nice twists and the odd end-of-chapter cliff hanger.

The three sections are quite different in tone. The first and second work well but the third, while entertaining, doesn’t quite seem to fit.

So clearly I’m not going to describe this as “must read.” It’s a fun read and maybe that’s all it needs to be.