Freshman summer reading fails to engage students

Photo Courtesy of Donald Norman

For all those who revel in enthralling repetition or enjoy a heartwarming essay on definitions, the search is over: Donald A. Norman’s Living with Complexity fits the bill. This magnificent example of grammatically correct drudgery is superbly written, yet lacks a subject that is actually interesting. While most of the book is factual, it is also entirely obvious. To make the subject even better, the points that are being made start to repeat by page 60 or so.

Living with Complexity is not only one of Mr. Norman’s most recent books (published in 2010) but also the book chosen for Tech’s 2013 First-Year Reading. The idea is for the whole of this year’s freshman class to read Living with Complexity, then throughout this semester attend events, discuss the book and generally bond over the common experience.

While there is nothing wrong with this idea, the book appears to be chosen based upon what is said to be in it (how to cope with complexity and give up on the misguided, not to mention unattainable, goal of simplicity), not what is actually learned by reading it (that there are many ways of stating the same thing over and over again).

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, Mr. Norman did not succumb to the fashionable trend of having the cover of his book depict an attention-grabbing action shot of something completely unrelated to the subject matter; rather, he opted for the cover art to be a humble pair of salt and pepper shakers. He teases his readers early on by stating that after reading Living with Complexity, they will be able to distinguish which shaker has which condiment in it.

When Norman returns to this topic, he discusses in depth how no one particularly knows how to distinguish between the two unless by trial and error or by filling the infernal shakers themselves. Reading the section on shakers will leave the reader more confused about how to tell them apart than before ever having heard the title Living with Complexity.

At one point, a little less than halfway through the book, there is a six-page-section titled “Desire Lines.” This is the best part of the book; it might even be the only part worthy of praise, though even praise might be too strong a word to use.

In this section, the author talks about sidewalks, how they never seem to be where people want them to be and that designers should take this fact into consideration before planning green spaces and flower beds where they are destined to be trampled. The freshmen reading this article in hopes of not needing to read the actual book should at the very least try to read this particular section.

Perhaps the best that can be said about Living with Complexity is that it is aptly titled. The book is literally about living with complexity. Not how to live with complexity, what can be done to tame complexity or even whether or not complexity is a bad thing, though the author does state that simplicity is unattainable.

Norman has filled his book with countless examples of complexity without giving a hint as to what the reader is supposed to glean from this list of apparent complaints. This book should only be read if it is forced upon the reader, or if he or she is inexplicably trapped in a tight space with only this book to keep them company (death by paper cut is also a choice).

Last year’s First Year Reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is a far better book, has the added bonus of being somewhat relevant and is a good choice for freshmen at a research institute such as Tech because it discusses the ethics of HeLa cell research. Just read that instead.