Top critical review
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It's good, but not THAT good
on 1 January 2010
The aim of this book is to record the everyday life of someone commuting to an office, simply recording some of their experiences and reflecting on how these have become part of everyday life. A simple example is the rise of the `ready meal' - the chicken kiev, shepherds pie or whatever you had for dinner - from an American devising a way to get rid of 270 tons of leftover turkey through to the present day sophistication. Apparently we (the public) are divided in to `hopeless addicts', `never in a million years' and `like the convenience but not the implied laziness'. For this last category supermarkets now sell `food assembly' packages where everything is laid out and all you have to do is `assemble' the meal in the kitchen. But recording the nostalgia along the way - the sophistication of first pizza you could cook at home direct from your freezer! - is fascinating.
The appeal of this book is that it's describing behaviour many of us see as so commonplace we don't even really think about it (e.g. commuting to work) but it will (presumably) be of interest to social historians in fifty years time. Reading the book is a bit like observational comedy but without so many punchlines. (One of the other Amazon reviewers says the book made him laugh out loud - I have to say it didn't do that for me but it is certainly easy, enjoyable reading.)
The best chapters are those where you share the experience (in my case examples would be the chapters on watching TV or dealing with e-mails at work). Some of the chapters would work less well if you don't work in an office and don't have, frankly, quite middle class tastes. Other reviewers have praised the book for fitting into the structure of a day but this is also limiting as the author has had to pick `9 to 5 commuter office life' as his typical day. That's a fair bet for his target audience but if you're retired, self-employed or work from home there might be large sections that are a bit alien to you. It also means the book does not really cover weekeneds in general andleaisure time in particular (maybe a follow-up book?)
Other reviewers have pointed out that the book is pacey because most chapters are confined to around 12-15 pages so you can read one fairly easily in around 20 minutes. I do prefer this but one downside is that a chapter can pick one view or interpretation and assume that generalises to everyone. The chapter on smoking is an example. Most of it is taken up with the `smoking break' at work topped off with a single view of why smoking is pleasurable (covering various arguments, the camaraderie of smoking, the image portrayed, the paraphernalia of smoking, etc.) I read this out to my wife, who smokes and doesn't work in an office and it bore no relation at all to her experience of smoking or reasons for not quitting. This made me question the simplicity of the writing to some extent and I wondered if other cultural historians, sociologists or anthropologists would take issue with other observations and interpretations contained here.
I wouldn't want the style to be any different, having said that. As a fan of the 1940s Mass Observation archive, I do enjoy being reminded about things we take for granted. There are some excellent and absorbing chapters in here. However, beware that the style can also be limiting and if you don't fit the `9-5 office commuter` photofit or if you don't fit the interpretation offered you might find some dud chapters in here.