In Praise of Books Unread (Part 1)

Every year I tell myself I should read more. And for the last couple of years I’ve turned that perpetual resolution into a public self-shaming by going onto and setting myself an ominous goal of reading 104 books, or 2 a week. I only count the books that I read cover to cover. Somehow, counting the half-finished ones feels dirty – a bit like cheating at solitaire.

I maintain a steady pace in the first few bleak and cabin-fevered months of the year, but the irresistible debauchery and heat-strokes of summer inevitably slow things down. Come November, I take a look at my faltering progress and immediately set about reading all the short and/or illustrated books I can get my hands on. It’s a ridiculous perversion of my true ambitions, but then again so are most of the things I do in my spare time.

For the record, even with those desperate last-minute attempts to pad my numbers, I only finished 60 books in 2013. Barely halfway there, but an improvement over the previous year’s total of 48.

ImageBut this post is about the nagging matter of the books that I don’t finish. Because I try to read widely, I inevitably stumble across a real stinker from time to time. For the most part, like Kurt Cobain might say as a reincarnated librarian, books don’t burn out, they fade away. Rather than being truly awful, most books I don’t finish are just bad enough to make reading them a chore, but not so bad as to make them laughable from the first pages.

Giving up on a book isn’t always a noble decision, but every man has his breaking point. Often, slogging through even half a book is better than never starting, and especially so with non-fiction.  After all, for every book that is mediocre or worse, there is at least one implicit lesson to be learned: what makes a book lousy. And as the cliché goes, you need the bad to appreciate the good. Experiencing an author make an attempt and fail is the most jarring reminder of how much effort and attention a skillful piece of writing actually entails.

What follows is a tip of the toque to a few of the books I couldn’t not put down, and the lessons I learned all the same.

1. Wired for War by Peter W. Singer.

ImageBoys love killing-machines. Guns, tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, fighter jets, and pointy rocks are all bad-ass – just ask any 13 year old kid who’s never had the bad luck of being targeted or maimed by such technological wonders. In fact, you could also just ask Peter W. Singer himself, whose previous book was about the always cheerful subject of child soldiers. Although I haven’t read it, I suspect it was written with a good deal more sobriety and humility than this, his latest book.

Wired for War is about drones and robots, and specifically those being developed and deployed by the U.S. military and its various defense contractors. With a more sophisticated vocabulary, Singer does his best to emulate the boyish and near-universal enthusiasm for war I mentioned above.

While there is nothing unambiguously wrong with a celebration of technology or a little feel-good military pride, there is something very off-putting about P. W. Singer’s tone from the early pages. Obviously, the technology he describes is some of the most advanced in the world. There are robots that can walk effectively on four legs, that can defuse all manner of bombs, that can slink into confined spaces and fire on enemies, that can circle over a target for hours and target individual victims. These are all terribly impressive, I agree, but Singer can’t seem to catch his breath after his heady introduction.

And therein lies the problem. These aren’t blenders or dialysis machines – they’re extremely effective weapons. Perhaps it is obvious to note that Singer is himself American and therefore counts himself among the minority of people on Earth who stand to benefit most from drones’ force-reduction and ‘life-saving’ capabilities. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that he’s not Pakistani or Yemeni, but I don’t think we can separate Singer’s nationality from the Orwellian twist of language of labelling ‘life-saving’ a machine that kills more effectively than a soldier.

Since Wired For War came off the presses in 2009, we have learned in considerable detail that drones can and will be used to kill where it would otherwise be impossible. In situations where political, military, legal, or financial constraints would make targeted killings by the U.S. government unworkable, drones have famously reaped victims and preyed on civilians. Loaded words, to be sure, but then again the drones in use must be called Reaper and Predator for a reason.

ImageIn fairness to Singer, he wrote his book in relatively early days and had limited access to information about what would ultimately come of the U.S. drone programs. Much of this information, of course, was not freely divulged but rather leaked by various whistleblowers and journalists, namely Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.

As it turns out, President Obama is a particularly intrepid drone user. It’s a jarring reality that the man who seemingly ran on a platform of ending wars in the Middle East and seeking dialogue with unfriendly nations first ordered drone attacks just three days after taking office.

He maintained that steady pace and has so far authorized strikes that tally approximately 2,400 deaths to date, among them approximately 600 civilians.* Even more grim is the likelihood that whomever his unfortunate successor might be, he or she will not hesitate to keep up the tempo of attacks, if not increasing it.

But my qualm with Singer is not that he isn’t clairvoyant. He quite sensibly dedicates several pages to the problems of abuse and war crimes committed by robots, albeit they are buried several hundred pages deep and in no way constitute a central thesis of his book. Nor is my biggest contention his cheeky style as I mentioned above. A review from MTV on the hardcover edition that praises the use of his ‘fanboy’ lexicon partly prepared me for that, along with section titles like “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” and “Mad Skillz”.

To me the most overarching flaw of this book is the type of pop-journalism that is increasingly prevalent in the modern news media. Stylistic missteps and nationalistic chest-beating aside, his greatest fault in this book is the pursuit of neutrality rather than objectivity. Singer falls into the all-too-common trap of journalistic laziness.

Throughout the book he repeatedly slips into the dialectic style of laying out a potential problem followed up with a possible technical fix. A typical pattern: ‘One the one hand, we are killing a ton of civilians and terrorizing populations with the constant presence of drones overhead, but on the other hand advances in Artificial Intelligence will help us make better combat decisions in the future’.

I’m mocking him, but it’s not a far stretch from the genuine article. A more journalistic and less jingoistic tone would rightfully emphasize that until we find a fix, people are going to be wrongly targeted, along with devastating political effects among targeted populations.

Singer also addresses the known and foreseen problems with drone warfare serially, instead of summarizing how factors might compound and feed each other. The runaway logic of escalating weapons systems warrant great attention. Sure, the U.S. has all the best drones now, but let’s see how things look in twenty years. If you read a somber book about, say, nuclear weapons, you will find little of this ‘fanboy’ enthusiasm. There’s a reason Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes called his book about the nuclear arms race Arsenals of Folly. Some future look back at this subject matter will likely make use of far more somber language.

A journalist writing a book should synthesize and use their wisdom. Instead, Singer merely documents current trends in a pro-versus-con, back-and-forth format with an unmistakable and at times inappropriate enthusiasm for the home team.



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