We Love This Book reviews: Jamie Mason and Tom Standage

In my latest pair of reviews for We Love This Book, I’m looking at a darkly comic thriller that launches the new ONE imprint from Pushkin Press; and a history of social media that finds its subject’s roots to stretch further back than you might suppose.

Jamie Mason, Three Graves Full (2012)

“There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”

In Jamie Mason‘s Three Graves Full, the man with the corpse in his garden is Jason Getty, who killed a conman named Gary Harris in the heat of the moment and hastily buried the evidence. We meet Jason as he is hoping the gardeners won’t come across Harris’s body. They don’t – but they do uncover two more bodies that Getty knew nothing about. These are the remains of Katielynn Montgomery and her lover Reid Tamblin, who were killed by Katielynn’s husband Boyd when he found them in bed together when the Montgomerys occupied Getty’s home. Now the police investigation will bring old and new players back to the house.

Three Graves Full can be divided into two parts: the first manoeuvres the main characters into place and reveals the broad extent of what has happened – even when the book is at its most amusing, Mason never allows us to forget the underlying gravity of the situation. The novel then turns into a breakneck chase which is as thrilling as one could wish; overlapping views of the same scene underline that there are partial perspectives all the way down. Mason explores what may happen when people seek to keep the deepest secrets, in a novel that deftly balances humour, action and contemplation.

(Read the original review here.)

Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall (2013)

According to Tom Standage, digital editor at the Economist, ‘social media’ has been around for a lot longer than you might think.

For most of human history, Standage argues in Writing on the Wall, information has mainly been shared between individuals, through personal networks. From this viewpoint, the 20th century’s centralised broadcast media, transmitting information to large numbers of people at once, are a historical anomaly.

I’ll admit I was sceptical about this book at first, concerned that Standage’s approach might be too anachronistic. In the event, I found it quite persuasive. The author goes chronologically through a number of examples, mostly from Western Europe, highlighting the similarities with contemporary social media. The Romans exchanged information through letters which could be intended for wider circulation; comments may literally be written on walls, and sometimes attracted replies.

Individuals at the Tudor court compiled interesting texts into their own commonplace books, rather like someone today adding content to a social media profile. The coffeehouses of 17th century London served as hubs for debate and the exchange of ideas. Even when the facts are familiar, Standage’s interpretation encourages us to look at the past in a new light.

Perhaps inevitably, Writing on the Wall loses a little of its interest when it reaches the development of the internet, because here Standage is narrating history more conventionally, rather than making those unexpected connections between past and present. But the book ends with a salutary reminder that information-sharing does not stand still, and we don’t know where its fascinating story will turn next.

(Read the original review here.)

2 Comments

  1. These both sound interesting. I’m also quite sceptical about books drawing too many parallels with the past. It seems like a bit of a reaction to the people saying the internet has changed everything, and I don’t think either extreme is true. There are some constants, but to extend social media back 2,000 years seems a stretch. Still, the examples sound interesting, so I might check it out!

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    25th October 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew. Re Standage’s book, I think it’s fair to say that there’s some sense of him cherry-picking examples (he goes straight from the Romans to Martin Luther, for example). Then again, viewed from another angle, he is arguing for a broader understanding of what it means for ‘media’ to be ‘social’ – and I think that’s interesting to contemplate.

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