Book Reviews

You May Have Already Won $5000

The First Annual Zócalo Public Square Book Prize was made possible by the generous support of Southern California Gas Company.


Last April, Zócalo Public Square announced the launch of an annual book prize, to be awarded to the book that most effectively-and most creatively, strikingly, or enjoyably-enhances our understanding of community. The only firm rules about the sort of entries that could be submitted were these: the book had to be non-fiction, U.S.-based, and published in 2010. The candidates that made it out of thousands into our initial round of 80 were as wide in their range of subject matter as our judges are wide in their range of interests. But eventually we emerged with three finalists that were broadly felt to be stellar.

As one might expect, our judges never achieved complete unanimity on a top choice. A book that was much loved by one judge was often little loved by another. In fact, even the winner of this year’s Zócalo Book Prize provoked sharp disagreements. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s for next week, when we announce the victor, who will win the $5,000 prize. For now, we present (in alphabetical order of author) our three superb finalists for the First Annual Zócalo Book Prize, sponsored by Southern California Gas Company. Each of them deserves a wide audience.

The author of the winning book will deliver a lecture at the award ceremony on April 8, 2011.

First Annual Zócalo Public Square Book Prize Award Ceremony
Friday, April 8, 2011, 7:30pm
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) – Grand Avenue
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA

The Three Finalists:

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
by Jane Brox

Brilliant is a quirky and delightful look at the history of artificial light and how it changed everything-starting with candles, proceeding to gas lights, and ending with our present age, as we prepare to step away from Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulb. Artificial light didn’t just change how we read or how we use our eyes inside. It changed our hours of waking and sleeping, our modes of transportation, and our patterns of coming together. Every time a group of 50,000 assembles peaceably in a stadium after dark to watch a baseball game or a Rolling Stones concert, artificial light is what makes such gatherings possible. Every time we log onto a discussion group online, the illuminated pixels our screen play a similarly instrumental role. With its unexpected details and colorful stories, this book surprises in all the best ways.

Excerpt: In this new wilderness, nothing was more complicated than time. But time — though no less an obsession than cleanliness — being abstract and malleable, couldn’t be confronted in a straightforward way. Within more affluent homes in the first decades of the twentieth century, women were often thought to have too much time on their hands. Ladies’ Home Journal declared: “As a matter of fact, what a certain type of woman needs today more than anything else is some task that ‘would tie her down.’ Our whole social fabric would be better for it. Too many women are dangerously idle.” But these same women felt pressure to make the most of time. The domestic science movement had taken hold, and its proponents advocated efficiency in household chores, the same way Frederick Taylor, writing in 1911, advocated it for factories: “We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient or ill-directed movements … leave nothing visible or tangible behind them.”

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

What Technology Wants
by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired, offers a provocative take on the nature of technology and its potential to give greater meaning to our lives and to improve the functioning of our communities. What Technology Wants argues that metaphors of biology are far more useful to understanding the evolution of technology than are analyses of engineering. As the title of the book suggests, technology, in Kelly’s view, has a mind-or at least a momentum-of its own. The way to make it work for us is to anticipate where it intends to go (whether we like it or not) and channel it into places where it can help us, and help humanity, the most. The author’s view is one of resolute optimism. “Technology amplifies the mind’s urge toward the unity of all thought,” writes the author, “it accelerates the connections among all people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite.”

Excerpt: We have lots of choices. But those choices are no longer simple, nor obvious. As technology increases its complexity, the technium demands more complex responses. For instance, the number of technologies to choose from so far exceeds our capacity to use them all that these days we define ourselves more by the technologies we don’t use than by those we do. In the same way that a vegetarian has more of an identity than an omnivore, someone who chooses not to drive or use the internet stakes out a stronger technological stance than the ordinary consumer. Although we don’t realize it, at the global scale, we opt out of more technology than we opt in to.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time
by Peter Lovenheim

When Peter Lovenheim, a resident in the suburbs of Rochester, NY, learned of a husband-wife murder-suicide that had taken place on his normally quiet street, he realized how little he actually knew of his neighbors or his neighborhood. That was the inspiration for In the Neighborhood, a book that introduces the reader to all of Lovenheim’s neighbors (or at least those willing to speak to him) and takes us into their houses. So determined is Lovenheim to get to know his neighbors that he politely asks them if he might sleep over at their house for one night, and, as often as not, gets a yes. The result is a memorable portrait of atomization in modern America-of a place where community is yearned for but not so easily found. Lovenheim argues that it’s time all of us took advantage of the connections right next door. “To do so, we really don’t need to sleep over at each other’s houses,” he writes. “All we need to do is deliberately set out to know the person next door, or across the street, or down the block; to ring the bell and open the door.”

Excerpt: All these lights, and others, taken together formed a sort of constellation for me, a picture of my neighbors inside their homes, living their lives, side by side with mine. Picturing myself as one point of light within that constellation was comforting.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

Our judges:

Greg Critser, Author, Eternity Soup, Generation Rx, and Fatland
William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
Jennifer Ferro, General Manager, KCRW
Kimberly Freeman, Director of Community Relations, Southern California Gas Company
Laurie Ochoa, Co-Editor, Slake
Josephine Ramirez, Program Director for the Arts, The James Irvine Foundation
Gregory Rodriguez, Founder and Executive Director, Zócalo Public Square
Michael Tolkin, Novelist and Filmmaker