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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
An Uncommon Whore - Belinda McBride Hydra

The following brief review by Mark Monday was removed by Goodreads for breaking their censorship policy, but is reposted here in accordance with the Hydra principle. Let me start by presenting the review itself:
An Uncommon Whore; Or, The Story of Goodreads' Acquisition by Amazon
by Belinda McBride (Goodreads Author)


[I am actually quite enthusiastic about reading this one! it looks enjoyable. but I really couldn't resist using the title for my own sordid little joke.]
Mark encouraged people to flag his review, and I enjoyed doing so; I pointed out that it violated Article 2 (vii) of the ToU, since it contained incorrect information. An Uncommon Whore, I went on to say, is about someone who gets fucked up the ass for money, and has nothing to do with the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon. Indeed, Goodreads is not even mentioned.

In case anyone missed it, that was ironic. Mark's review was funny because, at a non-literal and metaphorical level, there are indeed meaningful parallels between the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon and getting fucked up the ass for money. I can't resist the temptation to elaborate.

The received wisdom, at the moment, is that it is wrong to treat people as sex objects. But, speaking from personal experience, it isn't always bad to be treated as a sex object; it can indeed be very gratifying to feel, briefly, that you are merely a thing that your lover is using to obtain sexual pleasure. Many people enjoy playing this kind of game, and when it is done in an intimate, consensual way I do not see that there is anything wrong with it. The problem is that it shades over into behavior that becomes more and more clearly wrong. The tension between these different ways of looking at the issues are what this book is about.

A couple of other books come to mind here. In Musical Chairs, Jen Knox gives a frank account of what it's like to be a stripper. To my surprise, she says that it is in some ways an empowering experience. The performer, taking her clothes off on stage, has an undeniable power over her audience. But Jen also shows how it is ultimately more degrading than empowering. Even though the audience may show their appreciation by putting ten dollar bills in your G-string, you feel after a while that this is a compliment you would rather not receive. Jen describes how she got out, which was difficult but worthwhile.

A still clearer example is Paul Theroux's underrated novel Doctor Slaughter. Lauren Slaughter is smart, beautiful and insolvent. She is overflowing with self-confidence and unsqueamish about sex, so, when she is offered a job as a high-priced call-girl, she takes it. She is soon making a great deal of money getting fucked, up the ass and elsewhere, by a variety of men. She thinks she can handle it; she feels nothing but contempt for the majority of her clients, she makes friends with a few, she develops a strange, almost loving relationship with one older man who uses her services frequently. But as the book progresses, she comes to understand that she has misjudged the situation. She is not able to keep her feelings outside it. She is just a whore, even if she's an unusually smart and pretty one.

So: what parallels with Goodreads/Amazon? I have worked in a Silicon Valley startup myself, and I know the system from the inside. A group of people with a common dream put something together and hope they'll make money out of it. Sometimes it works. Most often, it comes to nothing. You generally discover after a while that there aren't many options if you want to see a return on your investment. The easiest route is definitely to sell out to one of the multinationals.

If you're approached by a big player, your first reaction is likely to be pleasure and relief. It was possible, indeed likely, that you were going to get nothing, and now you're looking at millions of dollars. Unfortunately, whatever your acquirer may say at first, it usually turns out that their idea of what to do with the startup is rather different from yours. At this point, it often dawns on people, particularly the engineers who did the grunt-work, that they have given up their dream for a financial reward which seems quite insufficient. Comparisons with stripping or prostitution don't appear completely inapposite.

So, in short, I think I was wrong to say that Mark's brief review was factually inaccurate, unless you take an extremely narrow view of what "factually inaccurate" means. In the language of this book, Goodreads has shown itself to be an uncommon whore.