PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... at once brilliant and exasperating, illuminating and confounding, absorbing and off-putting— ... This would be a daunting project even if Mr. Menand had established some disciplinary boundaries, but as readers of his criticism in the New Yorker know, his interests and insights range widely ... he pulls together a decade of writing and research, but it doesn’t take long for us to see that this project is both overtly unsystematic and highly selective ... Eventually we accommodate ourselves to a nonstop, nearly phantasmagorical display of erudite inquiry ... Clearly, even with hundreds of pages at the author’s disposal, none of these chapter-length probes can do its theme full justice, particularly because Mr. Menand’s approach is not to make a systematic argument but to focus on particular individuals and advocates, noting their characters and interactions and ultimately implying that cultural and political change might be discernable in statistics but is largely accidental, full of misunderstandings and unintended consequences. Many things that happened, he implies, could not have been expected, or if they could have been, people might not have noticed. When these tracings of lives and encounters are combined with the explication of some difficult ideas, the result can be unusually illuminating. Some revelations may be trivial and others suggestive, but under Mr. Menand’s guidance, something always can be learned ... But why then, should this book also exasperate? First, because much of the interpretation is left to the reader. There is no attempt to shape the narrative into anything cumulative or conclusive. If there are varieties or notions of \'freedom\' and \'liberty\' in play here, they are only vaguely defined and never put in careful order, nor are we directed to any larger understanding of their interaction. It is strange: Much of the book is very concrete but it all ends up feeling rather amorphous ... this suggestive and densely researched book will be a fertile resource for later writers, even though Mr. Menand fails to address the challenges he raises at the very beginning.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...without more detail, we can’t really know what happens between the (paper) sheets or the revisions of computer screens. There is lots else we can discover, though, in Mr. Kirschenbaum’s survey ... The best part of Track Changes, in fact, is its attempt to recapture the initial encounters with the technology ... One of the satisfactions of Track Changes is the discovery that other writers felt, as I did, that the best word-processing program was one of the first: the now-defunct WordStar from the 1970s and ’80s.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDespite the book’s scale, conclusiveness is not one of its goals. Empire of Things is difficult, sometimes elusive, yet almost always illuminating. By the end received wisdom is weakened, though we never become quite sure what to put in its place. But in an academic field—studying consumption—that can seem wary of its own specialty, that turns out to be a refreshing novelty, like window shopping without having to decide on a final purchase.