Wednesday, August 14, 2002

An Unnatural History of Objects

Yesterday after work I drove Kelly to the YMCA for her swim class. I took along a library book, The Evolution of Useful Things, by Henry Petroski. I basically scanned the whole book in the space of, say, forty minutes. It had many interesting tidbits, but suffered from being far too complete. Petroski has the habit of worrying a topic to death, covering every interesting and uninteresting detail until there is no life in the animal at all.

This is in contrast to Donald Norman's Things That Make Us Smart, on similar topics. I read this years ago and was fascinated, especially with his mindset. He was the first writer I'd been exposed to who would frame a pencil and paper as 'cognitive multipliers'. By contrast, Petroski's book could have benefitted by being edited by Cecil Adams.

So it goes back to the library this weekend. Heaven help me if I'd tried to read his other 'engineering of everyday things' book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. Two or three hundred pages about pencils. Imagine.

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