Association Executive Book Shelf

Books reviewed by Raphael Badagliacca

Shakespeare by Bill BrysonShakespeare
by Bill Bryson (HarperCollins, 2007)

One book leads to another. I was so impressed by Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” - one of last month’s reviews - it was only natural for me to be curious about what other books he may have written. And there are quite a few of them on a wide range of subjects.

I suppose I should not have been surprised that he had also written a book simply titled, “Shakespeare.” After all, a man who can give us a history of nearly everything should know something about the greatest influence on the language in which he is writing. The surprising thing is how much he knows about someone who is so little known.

Now, you might be wondering what a review of a book about Shakespeare could possibly have to do with being an association leader. I promise it will make sense by the end of the review.

To begin, although there are several potential painted portraits of the man vying for authenticity, no one is quite sure what Shakespeare looked like. He seems to have been Catholic in Protestant England; yet in a very religious age, no one can deduce his actual religious sentiments from his writings, if he had any at all. There are a handful of potential examples of his signature but some are so shaky that they give the impression they may have been forged, including those on his will, which contains the ever-perplexing bestowal of his “second best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway, who is not mentioned anywhere else in the will. The protocol of the time was to have two witnesses to a will, but for some unexplained reason Shakespeare had five witnesses. Shakespeare and others referencing him spell his name differently at different times, and this includes himself. Nowhere does his name appear exactly as we have chosen to spell it; “Shakespere” comes closest. Spelling itself in the sixteenth century seems to have been a creatively random exercise; the same words are spelled differently in the same play, although we never know if this is the playwright’s doing or that of a transcriber or printer.

Although Shakespeare ended his life financially comfortable this was not because of his work as a playwright, but rather due to sound real estate investments and part ownership of the theater in which his plays were performed. Playwrights earned very little. Shakespeare earned more from the publication of two long poems than he did from the runs of his plays. Perhaps the most remarkable fact in the book is that if not for two dedicated collectors and transcribers of Shakespeare’s scripts – Heminges and Condell – we would not have today perhaps the world’s most influential works of any kind – these made out of words – responsible for how we think and even what we do. This fits the realization Bryson gave us in A Short History of Nearly Everything about the lucky confluence of factors under which life itself came about and subsequently, our own consciousness. It is a lesson in not taking anything for granted.

“Shakespeare was not a particularly prolific writer,” Bryson tells us when compared to other playwrights of the time. This shocks the reader under the impression that the lynchpin of doubt as to whether the theatrical work we know of as Shakespeare’s could have been written by him questions whether such exceptional output could have been produced by a single person. That’s even before considering whether he could have been that single person, a provincial Englishman of working-class origins with little formal education.

That brings us to where we want to be in this review. Early in the day on which I finished reading this book, I heard an intense panel discussion on public radio with listener participation about YouTube, Facebook, the first amendment, and whether social media video content should be censored. Part of the discussion centered on how social media publishers, or should I say aggregators, generate revenue, which is almost entirely by counts – how many views, how far into the video it was viewed, etc. Data tells us, according to the panel discussion, that followers of conspiracy theories are among the most avid, consistent, and loyal viewers of content that appeals to them. Ads associated with this content get the most play, and there is no incentive to the aggregators to change this in any way. The consequence is that conspiracy theories, which feed on themselves, proliferate.

The voices of writers differ from each other. Bill Bryson’s voice is friendly, knowledgeable, and well-intentioned. His voice is like that of someone you have never met, yet you feel you know him very well. He wins your trust.

Of all the explanations on how conspiracy theories work, nothing I have read or heard compares with how Bryson dismantles one after the other the many challenges to the authenticity of William Shakespeare as author of the works that bear his name. Some of these challenges come from reputable organizations and well-known thinkers, but none of them stands up under the scrutiny of Bryson. In these fourteen pages we find a model for testing every kind of non-evidence-based narrative, no matter how passionate. They all look backwards, taking one piece of information, interpreting it as a clue, and disregarding anything contradictory no matter how sensible or proven. Any leader of any kind of organization faced with evaluating or addressing narratives of this sort should consider reading this chapter, the last one in the book, to derive a set of tools for separating fact from fiction. It’s also a reminder that there are true things that happen that explode all expectations – like life itself or the appearance out of nowhere of a human being with the skills of William Shakespeare.

This is not in the book, but I cannot help but include it here, and I am paraphrasing. It is the apt conclusion by Monty Python, giving perspective in its nonsensical, inimitable way -- that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by him, but by another man of the same name.

The Tyranny of ConvenienceThe Tyranny of Convenience
an Op-Ed in the NY Times by Tim Wu

I was led to read one of the books I reviewed last month – “Heartificial Intelligence” by John C. Havens – after hearing him speak on a panel session at a CESSE (Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives) conference. He mentioned the Op-Ed piece as a succinct expression of the kind of trade-offs that characterize the bargains we make with social media entities, without fully considering the consequences. This is not a one-sided argument.

In my look back at the 2018 year in books (InView, January 2019) at the top of the list of concerns expressed by the authors was the need to answer the question, “Who owns the data?” which is a particularly poignant question when the data is all about us.

Here is the actual op-ed piece: You will find in this clearly articulated piece of writing, a history of convenience, its appeal and its power over us. We value writing when we find ourselves in it. You can’t read this article without finding yourself in it.

  • We say we value freedom, but is convenience making all the decisions for us?
  • Is resisting convenience, when it’s something as pervasive as a google search or having a cell phone, considered fanaticism?
  • Does mass convenience, as in the convenience of purchasing from an Amazon, lead to monopoly?
  • Embracing inconvenience is clearly not the answer, but what is?
  • The advent of individual convenience, embodied first by Sony Walkman changed the “ideology of convenience.”
  • What are the unwelcome consequences of embracing convenience?
  • What are the ways we all embrace inconvenience to define ourselves?

If you have been reading this column, you know how many books I read, always physical books, usually hard covers. On long trips I’m never sure how many I will get to read or which ones I’ll find most intriguing, so I weight down my suitcase with five or six of them, and sometimes more. I haven’t caved into the convenience and sensibility of an e-reader. I just don’t feel it’s me.