2014, Books, Non-Fiction

The Human Age (2014) by Diane Ackerman

This is an endlessly fascinating book about how human beings are currently shaping the world through technological innovation, and how we have shaped the world in the past. Though the back might convince you it’s about how humans are fighting climate change, it’s really about much more than that, as the climate change section is only one part.

Ackerman is clearly endlessly fascinated with humanity and nature, and the interaction between the two. Her enthusiasm and passion are both palpable in her writing. What’s more impressive is her ability to write about so many different ideas with seemingly equal interest. The book works extremely well as a readable but informed survey of human technology and its (mostly positive) impact on the world as of its publication. But I have some problems with Ackerman’s writing and process.

Ackerman is at times too whimsical – her writing can sometimes feel like it belongs in a children’s book or something other than a popular science book. But this feels kind of nit picky given how much material she covers and how accessible she makes it.

I have concerns about her methods: this is a book that should be full of footnotes or endnotes, though I would prefer footnotes personally. There are endnotes, but there are few of them. In one case, I googled something out of interest (you will google lots of stuff reading this book) and found a Wire article where her paragraphs and the Wire article were remarkably similar. The Wire article was published a few years before this book. The endnote for the chapter does not mention Wire magazine. I didn’t do this again, but I’m pretty confident I could have found more instances where she had neglected to credit her source. That is a problem. And it’s surprising that someone as published as Ackerman would do that. (Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because she’s published so much that she feels like she doesn’t need to credit everyone.)

That left a sour taste in my mouth I never quite got over. But I still think you should read this book – even if she stole some of this from other people, the information is valuable. Also, Ackerman’s attitude is so positive about humanity’s ability to adapt, create and sustain, it’s a needed tonic in our era of 24 hour news when we are incessantly bombarded with the terrible things human beings do.

Still, it could be a little more professional.


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