70.1 February 2023

Book Reviews

By Jackie Damrau, Editor

Books Reviewed in This Issue

The reviews provided here are those that are self-selected by the reviewers from a provided list of available titles over a specific date range. Want to become a book reviewer? Contact Dr. Jackie Damrau at jdamrau3@gmail.com for more information.

Broken to Better: 13 Ways Not to Fail at Life and Leadership

Michael Kurland

Handbook for Academic Authors: How to Navigate the Publishing Process, 6th ed.

Beth Luey

Leading Content Design

Rachel McConnell

Microsoft Excel Step by Step (Office 2021 and Microsoft 365)

Joan Lambert and Curtis Frye

Design for Change in Higher Education

Jeffrey T. Grabill, Sarah Gretter, and Erik Skogsberg

Pink Flamingos & the Yellow Pages: The Surprising Stories behind the Colors of Our World

Bob Hambly

Keeping the World’s Environment under Review: An Intellectual History of the Global Environmental Outlook

Jan Bakkes, Marion Cheatle, Nora Mżavanadze, László Pintér, and Ronald G. Witt

The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

Sarah Burton and Jem Poster

Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customers’ Hearts

Neil Hoyne

Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap

Margot Bloomstein

Courageous Discomfort: How to Have Important, Brave, Life-Changing Conversations About Race and Racism

Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman

The Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making of Western Culture

Noa Menhaim

Improve Your Grammar: The Essential Guide to Accurate Writing, 3rd ed.

Vanessa Jakeman, Mark Harrison, and Ken Paterson

Dancing with Robots: The 29 Strategies for Success in the Age of AI and Automation

Bill Bishop

Taxi from Another Plant: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe

Charles S. Cockell

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present

Johanna Drucker

World of Patterns: A Global History of Knowledge

Rens Bod

Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking

James C. Zimring

Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia

Jason Brennan

Broken to Better: 13 Ways Not to Fail at Life and Leadership

Michael Kurland. 2022. Houndstooth Press. [ISBN 978-1-5445-2970-7. 162 pages. US$15.99 (softcover).]

The “Broken” in Michael Kurland’s book, Broken to Better: 13 Ways Not to Fail at Life and Leadership, title refers to his life before launching his company. Divorced and tired of working in sales positions that were not personally fulfilling, he wanted to launch a company that aligned with his values. The “Better” refers to his journey as an entrepreneur after reading Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia that inspired him “…to be a CEO of a purpose-driven business” (p. 140). Kurland’s “Be Better” approach to leadership can be summarized as providing superior customer service, valuing employees and vendors, and improving the lives of those in the community. According to Kurland, creating and maintaining a company culture (“…a work environment that is welcoming, nurturing, and empowering”) is the key to achieving these goals (p. 11).

The book’s title is a bit misleading as Kurland is honest, but upbeat and positive about his experiences and challenges of co-founding and building a successful purpose-driven company. It is written in a conversational tone with 13 chapters that cover 13 principles that reflect Kurland’s “Be Better” approach. In each chapter, the author weaves his personal journey as a business leader with practical tips and advice based on his experience with the chapter’s topic. Although Kurland owns a facility management company, his advice is relevant to technical communicators who are business owners or exploring this path as both fields provide services and must distinguish themselves from other companies in their field. I found tips that I could adapt to my technical communication business.

While some advice may not be new, Broken to Better still contains useful information. Because the solo owner model is common in the technical communication field, Kurland’s advice in Chapters 4 and 5 on hiring and expanding a company is valuable for solo owners who are interested in business growth. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Kurland (a non-technical communication professional) cover the role of writing policies and procedures when scaling a business (pp. 121–123). His acknowledgment of the importance of written procedures is gratifying and demonstrates his understanding of what it takes for a company to maintain long-term success.

Each chapter concludes with a reference to a podcast applicable to the chapter’s principle from Kurland’s podcast series, where a business leader or subject matter expert provides their personal perspective on the topic. Each podcast also includes a transcript. After a quick sampling of the series, it seems that most of the podcasts focus on interpersonal topics. The podcasts are located on his website, MichaelKurland.co/bebetter-podcast.

The author includes a helpful reference that summarizes the Broken to Better principles (pp. 154–155).

Ann Marie Queeney

Ann Marie Queeney is an STC senior member with more than 20 years’ technical communication experience primarily in the medical device industry. Her STC experience includes serving as a 2020-2022 Board member and CAC (Communities Affairs Committee) Chair, special interest group leader, and STC Education Committee member. Ann Marie is the owner of A.M. Queeney, LLC.

Handbook for Academic Authors: How to Navigate the Publishing Process

Beth Luey. 2022. 6th ed. Cambridge University Press. [ISBN 978-1-00-907335-6. 284 pages, including index. US$21.99 (softcover).]

Academics just beginning their careers frequently seek advice on how to get their books and journal articles published. One of the most reliable guides has long been Beth Luey’s Handbook for Academic Authors, first published in 1987. The 2022 edition continues to offer fine advice throughout.

The points that Luey makes aren’t particularly novel. Many of us with years of experience have been offering many of the same pieces of advice when teaching courses in professional publication or mentoring new writers. But the pieces are organized very effectively in Luey’s hands.

She goes in-depth on finding and working with publishers of journal articles, scholarly books, anthologies, textbooks, revised dissertations, and books for a general audience. Look carefully also at her informed take on book prices (perhaps her best chapter) and her thoughts on digital publishing and social media.

I personally find Luey’s approach and suggestions insightful and even entertaining. In most chapters she explains how various actions you might take will sit with promotion and tenure committees. Ethics are a major concern for her, as evidenced by the attention paid to permissions in several chapters and her skewering of vanity presses. And she is ever mindful of the need for quality: “There is a vast amount of free second-rate material on the Web that competes with authoritative, high-quality resources” (p. 259).

Yes, Luey sounds authoritative, but she also shows a human touch: in discussing the certainty of your manuscript being rejected at some point, she shares that she got several rejections when she first submitted this handbook’s manuscript to publishers.

As a newly coined academic, you’d ignore Luey’s advice at your own peril. Pick up at least one edition of the handbook and read it thoroughly. You might want to go beyond the chapter on dissertations in this book and check out her fine collection Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors (University of California Press, updated ed., 2008), which likewise remains valuable for younger scholars.

Avon J. Murphy

Avon J. Murphy is an STC Fellow who serves the Society as a researcher and as editor of the annual Summit Proceedings. A onetime college professor and government writer, he is a technical editing contractor and the principal in Murphy Editing and Writing Services, based in western Washington.

Leading Content Design

Rachel McConnell. 2022. A Book Apart. [ISBN 978-1-952616-17-4. 140 pages, including index. US$29.00 (softcover).]

Hidden behind the title Leading Content Design is one of the most illuminating books available today on content operations (“content ops”). Ultimately, this book is not so much about content design as it is about the surrounding tasks prerequisite to doing effective content design. The author divides these content ops tasks into five categories: people, capability, process, tools and systems, and organizational alignment. This clear breakdown made for the most understandable explanation of content ops that I have yet to encounter.

Rachel McConnell recognizes the tendency for content design teams to be spread thin and pulled in too many directions, resulting in shallow work that doesn’t get to make use of the teams’ design skills. She is careful to point out that without a dedicated ops person, it’s easy for content ops work to fall by the wayside, even for content teams that appear to be organized into mature, established hierarchies. Her approach to doing this work effectively is to view “the content team as a product itself” and to go about content ops as she “would approach any other design project” (p. 16).

Artifacts and ideas from McConnell’s user-centered design and research activities fill the pages of Leading Content Design, especially in the fourth chapter, “Process, Tools, and Workflows.” One of my favorites is the workflow map, which uses sticky notes to illustrate, step-by-step, each task that goes into creating a particular type of content, who is responsible, and how long it will take. Once this has been visualized, it’s easier to spot inefficiencies and figure out ways to tangibly improve the process. McConnell recommends that changes to processes be introduced as prototypes, to be evaluated collaboratively with team members at a set review date.

Leading Content Design dedicates its final chapter, “Beyond the Team,” to sharing ideas for how content designers can broaden their influence across their organizations and create lasting change. One of the most interesting (though perhaps nerve-wracking) suggestions is to hold content design critique sessions (or crits, as McConnell calls them) in open areas where anyone at the organization can observe and eavesdrop” (p. 130).

It sure feels like content design leaders need to be resilient and brave people, because they often must create new processes from scratch and fight for stakeholder buy-in at every step of the way. Leading Content Design is a no-nonsense guidebook packed with the experience and wisdom of an author who has boldly navigated these waters. I recommend it to senior-level content designers and team leads who truly want to elevate the way content is treated at their organizations.

Josh Anderson

Josh Anderson, CPTC, is an Associate Information Architect at Precision Content. Josh was an English teacher in Japan and an SEO Specialist in the Chicagoland area before earning a Master of Information at the University of Toronto.

Microsoft Excel Step by Step
(Office 2021 and Microsoft 365)

Joan Lambert and Curtis Frye. 2022. Microsoft Press. [ISBN: 978-0-13-756427-9. 458 pages, including index. US$39.99 (softcover).]

Microsoft Excel Step by Step (Office 2021 and Microsoft 365) is a well-structured, 16-chapter reference book to learn Microsoft Excel for Office 2021 and Microsoft 365 software. Chapters cover the basics, setting up a workbook/worksheet, working with data and calculations on data, visualizing/managing/analyzing data, combining data from multiple sources, creating charts/graphics and PivotTables/PivotCharts, printing worksheets/charts, and automating tasks/input. The Step-by-Step approach helps you follow the steps easily and use the online practice files from each chapter. You can open the files to practice or download and save them for repeat practice.

I enjoyed learning Chapter 13, which shows the procedures for integrating Excel, Word, and PowerPoint contents within Microsoft 365 applications (p. 335). Collaborating with colleagues can benefit my work and directly apply to my daily job with my team members (p. 351).

The Appendix in Microsoft Excel Step by Step also provides keyboard shortcuts for Excel and Microsoft 365 (p. 425). The highlight is that all levels of readers can read this book and use it as a reference. You can start with any chapter and read specific task steps that you want to learn how to do.

Overall, the book’s layout is simple and guides steps with practical examples and screenshots to present the exact step to make an understanding and give a chance to get familiar with each task.

An E-book edition is also available and offers the ability to search any text/word or copy and paste the contents.

Sam Lee

Sam Lee is an STC member and a Policies & Procedures SIG co-manager. He has a Master of Technology Management, Master of Engineering Electrical Engineering at Memorial University, and a Technical Writing Certificate at the University of Waterloo. Sam is a Senior Avionics Engineer, where he designs avionics systems and writes aviation certification-related documentation.

Design for Change in Higher Education

Jeffrey T. Grabill, Sarah Gretter, and Erik Skogsberg. 2022. Johns Hopkins University Press. [ISBN 978-1-4214-4321-8. 166 pages, including index. US$32.95 (hardcover).]

Design for Change in Higher Education argues that higher education needs to change in response to several societal pressures, including demographic changes in students, cost pressures, and the growth of educational technologies (pp. 1-2). The authors present a framework for redesigning higher education to meet these challenges, a framework that models the design process as a conversation amongst stakeholders (p. 12). Ultimately, the book serves as a rationale for a playbook for redesigning higher education: https://hubplaybook.org/. In this way, the book’s chapters each explore a facet of redesigning higher education, from introducing the term learning experience design in Chapter 1 through explaining how institutions can serve as design organizations in Chapter 6.

First, in Chapter 1, the authors introduce learning experience design as “an emerging approach to learning design that uses methods borrowed from related design disciplines such as user experience design and service design thinking” (p. 25). This way of thinking scaffolds the rest of the book. For example, Chapter 2 explores how to apply learning experience design in higher education by introducing guiding principles for doing so. Chapter 3 takes on the design of conversations in higher education, which the authors value “as a way to ‘unfreeze’ problems, identify potential solutions, and prototype ideas” (p. 64). Chapter 4 introduces change management as a means of employing these principles. Chapter 5 takes on the role of assessment and research in this process. Chapter 6 takes on design operations and how it can be used to repurpose institutions as design organizations.

Overall, Design for Change in Higher Education is a provocative take on the function of higher education and its role in society. It argues that higher education should be able to pivot much like private sector organizations do in response to market trends, societal expectations, and funding challenges. Whether this is a feasible approach to many institutions of higher education, however, is another question. The authors would say yes. And they lay out a compelling road map for rethinking of colleges and universities as places driven by design, innovation, and adaptation.

Any member in the technical communication field that has any connection to higher education would probably find this book very interesting. It seems specifically targeted at university researchers, teachers, and administrators, however, or those in the trenches of higher education. In summary, if the reader wants to explore a daring roadmap for redesigning higher education to improve how well it can provide education, research, and other resources to those affiliated with it, then Design for Change in Higher Education is highly recommended.

Guiseppe Getto

Guiseppe Getto is a faculty member at Mercer University. He is also President and Co-Founder of Content Garden, Inc., a content strategy and UX consulting firm.

Pink Flamingos & the Yellow Pages: The Surprising Stories behind the Colors of Our World

Bob Hambly. 2022. Chronicle Books. [ISBN 978-1-4521-8049-6. 112 pages. US$22.95 (hardcover).]

Why is the blue ribbon considered the best? What is the “world’s ugliest color”? And is there a reason that the yellow pages are, in fact, yellow? Bob Hambly addresses these questions and more across 75 short essays in Pink Flamingos & the Yellow Pages: The Surprising Stories behind the Colors of Our World. This book celebrates color and design, showcasing the most intriguing tales of color throughout history. These stories take on several forms: some explain why a certain object (such as the titular flamingo) is colored in a specific way, while other essays examine the origin of a color-related term (as in “purple prose”). Each page features a new topic, drawn from an extraordinarily broad group of fields. As Hambly states in the book’s introduction, “…color is a never-ending study. Fine art, design, nature, literature, history, and sociology are forever expanding my appreciation of the subject” (p. 9).

Though the essays can be read by themselves, taken together they reinforce this theme. Color is everywhere. A good designer always has a reason for introducing color, whether it is on a sports uniform, a country’s flag, or an auditorium seat. All the essays support this claim, but some are inevitably more interesting than others. Conversely, many topics are more interesting than their essay can accommodate; for instance, the entry on “redheads” doesn’t disclose what causes different hair colors, or why red is the rarest hair color. Several essays leave questions unanswered, which can be frustrating since each essay is typically shorter than half a page. At only 112 pages, this book can be described as “brief” as it is an easy read that left me wanting more. Hambly adapted this book from his Colour Studies blog where he could have added other content to make this book more meaningful.

I hesitate to recommend Pink Flamingos & the Yellow Pages to someone wanting serious analysis of color; its brevity keeps the book from being a true resource for color study, such as Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Ultimately though, that’s not what this book is striving for. This book is an excellent resource for anyone with a casual interest in color studies and provides a great example of how to communicate a wide swath of technical topics to a general audience. By linking so many distinct domains through color, Hambly demonstrates how pervasively the study of color has affected our lives. There are plenty of fascinating facts and stories throughout the book’s essays. Readers who are left wanting more can always seek out Hambly’s Colour Studies blog for more stories of colors and their history.

Nathan Guzman

Nathan Guzman is a graduate student studying technical communication at the University of Alabama–Huntsville. His background is in aerospace engineering with plans of becoming a full-time editor upon graduation. Nathan is an avid reader with interests in reading anything that expands his knowledge of the world and how it works.

Keeping the World’s Environment under Review: An Intellectual History of the Global Environmental Outlook

Jan Bakkes, Marion Cheatle, Nora Mżavanadze, László Pintér, and Ronald G. Witt. Central European University Press. [ISBN 978-963-386-595-8. 534 pages, including index. US$40.00 (softcover).]

Fifty years ago, the United Nations established the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) designed to monitor the global environment. In 1992, UNEP developed the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO), which is a comprehensive report published every four years. The GEO is designed to assess and discuss global environmental issues. Keeping the World’s Environment under Review: An Intellectual History of the Global Environmental Outlook, by Jan Bakkes, et al., is a thorough attempt to “document and critically analyse the history of the GEO,” which has published six editions to date (p. 5).

Each chapter evaluates one aspect of researching and writing the GEO, from “Collaboration and Participation in the Global Environment Outlook Process” to “Global Perception and Influence of the GEO.” These chapters cover specific and highly technical information, but the authors bring up many salient points that are of more general interest, such as the GEO’s role of serving as a predictor of emerging environmental issues. The GEO reports warned us of the emerging crisis in global resources as countries became wealthier and began to rely more on meat-based diets, for example.

Many of the issues discussed in this book are applicable to any discipline that conducts collaborative research and writing. Technical communicators may appreciate the discussion of how the global GEO team collaborated on the research and writing of each report, as well as the discussion of effective practices for stakeholder outreach. As a researcher in intercultural technical communication, I valued the in-depth discussion of the singular success in researching and writing in the Latin American countries, which the authors attributed to the “cultural and linguistic homogeneity” of the region (p. 168).

The writing in Keeping the World’s Environment under Review should be easy to follow for most technical communication professionals, despite the abundance of acronyms that we have come to expect from government publications. Much of the discussion draws from interviews with stakeholders, government officials, and researchers who have contributed to one or more of the GEO reports. The chapters are well-organized and contain the appropriate call-out boxes, chapter summaries, and definitions, making the format ideal for a reader who is new to this topic. The full-color photos and graphs are eye-catching and support the information well.

Keeping the World’s Environment under Review is not light reading by any means, it is too technical, and the subject matter is too specific to be of interest to a more general audience within technical communication. However, technical communicators working with large, global or multi-regional teams or technical communicators working in environmental or intercultural communication would find many gems in this book that they could apply to their work or research.

Nicole St. Germaine

Nicole St. Germaine is an associate professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. She specializes in intercultural technical communication in the health fields.

The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

Sarah Burton and Jem Poster. 2022. Cambridge University Press. [ISBN 978-1-009-07373- 8. 284 pages, including index. US$16.95 (softcover).]

The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write: A Handbook for Fiction Writers contains some excellent observations for people interested in writing fiction. It is a tremendous piece of research. The discussions dig so deeply into topics that readers are left with the question: Now how do I apply this? It’s not a how-to book.

The book has chapters on Character, Plot and Structure, Dialogue, Narrative Point-of View, Beginnings and Endings, and Descriptions, among others. All with interesting tidbits, such as the interaction between topics. For example, Chapter 3, Character, points out the two-way relationship between plot and character: “Characters make things happen and the things that happen affect the development of characters” (p.17).

There are two principal ways of introducing characters into fiction: 1) Introduce them explicitly by painting a detailed portrait of their appearance (and personality) “before allowing them to assume their role in the story”, and 2) (currently the more usual) “set them loose in the story,” and let the reader build up the picture by seeing them in action, which is more like the cinematic (p. 19).

Learning little by little is how we get to know people in real life. “A well-drawn character often accumulates in the reader’s mind rather than springing fully-fledged from the first page” (p. 20).

On the downside, Chapter 10, Description, has a section on Metaphors and Similes (pp. 187–190). Instead of emphasizing the use and elaboration of this powerful technique, Sarah Burton and Jem Poster criticize its potential for producing hackneyed prose. And we must remember that what we today call fiction techniques have become common in all genres: trade and scholarly writing.

Another corrective deals with formatting: There are often too many pages of straight text without intervening heads and subheads. This makes the material less inviting, harder to understand, and…to remember. Chapter 4, for example, has 14 pages, with only one subhead for the first 10 pages. Chapter 9 has five subheads for its 22 pages.

Chapter 9, Beginnings & Endings: Tension & Pace, offers some sage advice, and echoes in print, that immortal sales pitch: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Basically, the opening should contain whatever hooks the reader; whatever draws them in. The crucial thing is to be sure it has a function; that it has a bearing on the narrative (p. 167).

An ending is many-faceted: Does it end too soon? Too abruptly? Is it satisfying? Unsatisfying? Does the end go on too long? A good ending in some way usually gestures back in some way, to earlier events; sometimes recalling the opening of the story (p. 175). An interesting question to ask yourself at the end of every chapter is: What has the chapter added to the story?

For reasons like these, I’d say The Book You Need to Read to Write the Book You Want to Write would be more useful for advanced students of writing.

Steven Darian

Steven Darian is a professor emeritus at Rutgers University. He has written more than a dozen books on topics ranging from Technique in Nonfiction: The Tools of the Trade to The Role of Religion in Just About Everything.

Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customers’ Hearts

Neil Hoyne. 2022. Portfolio/Penguin. [ISBN 978-0-593-42065-2. 216 pages, including index. US$27.00 (hardcover).]

Converted: The Data-Driven Way to Win Customers’ Hearts is a brief book by Neil Hoyne, Google’s chief measurement strategist, about how to get the most out of the data generated by your relationships with your customers. It will bring you up to speed with a smattering of research-backed psychological insights that carry often unintuitive implications for digital marketing.

For example, Hoyne writes about a website that deliberately delayed displaying search results by a few seconds. This caused users to value the results more highly, due to the same psychological principle that causes restaurant patrons to report their food as tastier if they watch cooks laboring over it. Digital marketers can thrive by embracing our often-irrational human nature.

One notable anecdote in the book is about a hotel company that discovered it was wasting money on customers who would return to the website via paid search advertisements just so they could check on their reservations. In response, the hotel company began emailing reminders to their customers a few days before their reservations. However, this unexpectedly led to even steeper monetary losses as the reminders prompted some people to cancel their stays. Losses though they may be, I thought at this point that Hoyne might acknowledge that the hotel company’s reminders ultimately helped customers by saving them the headache of being charged for a reservation that was perhaps unintended or forgotten. However, the company’s response, relayed uncritically by Hoyne, was to figure out a way to predict which customers were most likely to cancel and then exclude them from receiving reminders. This stood out to me as a stark representation of the book’s profit-above-all-else perspective.

The more data you can gather on your customers the better, since analysis is inherently fraught with subjectivity, as Converted convincingly argues. However, Hoyne’s advice for separating the signal from the noise and identifying the most pertinent hints in your data is little more than a couple of vague pages about the wonders of machine learning. Converted is at its best when it inspires with its nuggets of insights pulled from the pages of academic marketing journals. The numerous anecdotes are meant to encourage the reader to get started collecting and analyzing customer data in whatever way they can. Hoyne emphasizes that starting simple and imperfectly is not only a sound idea but is ultimately a requirement to avoid being surpassed by your more fearless, experimental competitors.

Josh Anderson

Josh Anderson, CPTC, is an Associate Information Architect at Precision Content. Josh was an English teacher in Japan and an SEO Specialist in the Chicagoland area before earning a Master of Information at the University of Toronto.

Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap

Margot Bloomstein. 2021. Page Two Books. [ISBN 978-1-989603-92-5. 250 pages, including index. US$24.95 (hardcover).]

Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap is a narrative and instructive book that offers readers a three-prong approach to building and sustaining trust through voice, volume, and vulnerability. Margot Bloomstein conducted over 25 interviews with academics, politicians, and business experts to better understand how marketers, designers, and writers can go beyond buzzwords like “empathy” and “transparency” to increase confidence, encourage authenticity, and eventually, build trust for consumer brands.

Voice: Bloomstein likens voice to a unique personality that helps customers understand who you are, what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, why you do it. Voice offers your audience stories about you and your employees or educational information about your products and services. You can go a step further by providing meaningful commentary on industry trends or advice for common problems adjacent to your brand. Providing content with a specific voice is most effective when it is written in plain language (Chapter 4), educates customers with humility (Chapter 3), and communicates consistently across time and channels (Chapter 2).

Volume: Besides a unique voice, Bloomstein recommends consumer brands design with patterns and visuals that make the information easy to digest and remember. Volume refers to how much you say, when you say it, where you say it, and how often you say it. Offering too much detail can overwhelm customers, while providing too little can make them think you’re holding something back. It’s important to speak with authenticity and brevity (Chapter 6), share examples of your work early and often (Chapter 5), and find a balance between fidelity and abstraction (Chapter 7).

Vulnerability: Over the last few years (and thanks to public intellectual Brené Brown), vulnerability has gained much attention in business and political spheres. Vulnerability is necessary for consumer brands to build and sustain trust with their customers. However, to be most effective, vulnerability must be combined with convening community for collaborative creation (Chapter 8), a willingness to reflect and learn from what goes wrong (Chapter 9), and a vision for the future that is not only focused on profitability, but also responsibility, sustainability, and self-awareness (Chapter 10).

As someone who has worked in both academia and industry, I found this book to be well-researched and very accessible. Bloomstein follows her own advice by writing in plain language and offering her readers a unique perspective (voice) with just the right amount of information (volume) and willingness to share personal details of her own experience and those of her interviewees (vulnerability). Trustworthy’s organizational patterns (three key points with three chapters each) made the reading experience enjoyable and memorable. Because of Bloomstein’s expertise in content strategy and because I received this book at the 2022 STC Summit, which was focused on content strategy, I was expecting this book to focus primarily on the impact of the content—but it’s so much more! I recommend Trustworthy to anyone who is interested in learning how to embrace change, challenge the status quo, and build trust for a brand or organization.

Erica M. Stone, PhD

Erica Stone is a member of STC as well as the East Tennessee chapter. For the last three years, she has served as a reviewer on the STC Scholarship Committee. She has more than 10 years of technical communication experience with a focus on UX writing and content design.

Courageous Discomfort: How to Have Important, Brave, Life-Changing Conversations About Race and Racism

Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman. 2022. Chronicle Books. [ISBN 978-1-79721-526-6. 260 pages, no index. US$24.95 (softcover).]

Oscar Wilde is credited with the observation that “a gentleman never gives offence unintentionally.” In Courageous Discomfort: How to Have Important, Brave, Life-Changing Conversations About Race and Racism, Shanterra McBride and Rosalind Wiseman implicitly critique Wilde’s notion by reminding us that if we assume the right to offend, we’re ignoring the “gentle” part of “gentleman.” Most people have enough stress in their lives and carry enough wounds that it’s cruel to add to that burden—particularly for those who have suffered a lifetime of discrimination or even outright racism.

Courageous Discomfort follows a simple, effective structure: Each chapter begins with a story that illustrates a particular problem and context, explains “what’s really going on”, and presents key principles for coping (the chapter’s message and purpose). Each chapter clarifies a different aspect of racism and its impacts. The authors end by proposing potential strategies and solutions and key takeaway messages.

Racial issues are a minefield. Microaggressions are ubiquitous and unending; even simple expressions of curiosity like “where are you from?” (the answer is often “right here!”) are problematic because each, individually, seems minor, but taken together, they create considerable cumulative pain (p. 76). If you haven’t experienced that endless friction, its severity may surprise you.

Throughout the book, the authors focus on building empathy, which makes it easier to understand the problems we cause and muster the courage to solve them. When we cause harm, we should seek atonement. Their proposed method resembles the Jewish concept of “t’shuvah” and the Canadian First Nations concept of restorative justice: confess our error; honestly express regret for what we’ve done, without self-justifying; vow to try not to sin again; and seek a way to make amends. McBride and Wiseman remind us we should do the right thing not to earn a reward or recognition, but rather because it’s the right thing.

Reading this book takes work: you can’t just read it and walk away. You’ll need the courage to risk making mistakes and a heartfelt desire to do better next time. You’ll be constantly challenged to be better and do better, which is uncomfortable. Some exercises will anger you because they ask you to challenge comfortable assumptions or accept responsibility for good intentions gone astray. But if you read this book and examine your responses honestly, you’ll learn to look beyond yourself and focus on the needs of others. It’s all about preserving the other person’s dignity. If you start there and keep returning to that focus, you may still err, but you’ll be better able to recover from the error.

Although Courageous Discomfort focuses on the Black American experience with implicit and explicit racism, the principles of kindness, respect, and preserving another person’s dignity apply to any difficult conversation, whether it focuses on gender, religion, or culture.

Geoff Hart

Geoff Hart is an STC Fellow with more than 30 years of writing, editing, translation, and information design experience. He’s traveled widely and worked with authors from many cultures. He’s the author of two popular books, Effective Onscreen Editing and Writing for Science Journals.

The Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making of Western Culture

Noa Menhaim. 2022. Watkins Publishing. [ISBN 978-1-78678-647-0. 278 pages, including index. US$24.95 (hardback).]

There exists in Western culture certain core stories and themes that everyone seems to know about. For example, creatures of mythology and fantasy ranging from unicorns to vampires, witches to fairies. But where did the concepts for each of these originate? In The Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making of Western Culture, Noa Menhaim strives to explore the cultural roots of legendary concepts which flourish in our literature, cinema, and everyday thoughts.

To tackle such diverse concepts as alien invasions, the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, and authors of children’s literature such as Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie, Menhaim organizes this book into a series of independent essays. Each chapter is a standalone analysis of one topic, such as the creation of books and the history of the Norse gods. Menhaim uses a unique method of cross-referencing to tie each chapter together. When a subject is mentioned which is discussed in greater detail in another chapter, a callout like a review comment in Microsoft Word is placed in the margin, with a line leading to highlighted text that it references. These callouts often give a small tidbit of relevant information, and then a reference to another chapter, along with the page number. This system operates separately from the extensive set of endnotes which serve as citations. For example, the chapter about mermaids discusses the evolution of the mermaid illustration on the Starbucks logo. Various forms of the logo were criticized by conspiracy theorists, so Menhaim included a callout highlighting “conspiracy afficionados” and then referencing a chapter that discusses conspiracy theories about faking the moon landing. In this manner, readers are guided to a related topic much like reading an article online and following embedded links to related articles.

If you’ve ever wondered how the days of the week got their names, or how images of the Christian devil have come to resemble the ancient Greek god Pan, then The Life Fantastic can deliver such knowledge in fiendishly delicious, bite-sized pieces. The chapters are short enough to read in one sitting but detailed enough that you’ll want to focus on every point made. There is no need to read the book in any order as there is culmination of essays, but simply a collection of interconnected articles. Diverse topics from classical literature to Frank Herbert’s Dune are all tied together in an engrossing and thoughtful book which is bound to teach anyone something about their common culture.

Timothy Esposito

Timothy Esposito is an STC Fellow, current STC Vice President, and past president of the STC Philadelphia Metro chapter. He is the Manager of Logistics Documentation at Oracle with more than 20 years of technical communication experience.

Improve Your Grammar: The Essential Guide to Accurate Writing

Vanessa Jakeman, Mark Harrison, and Ken Paterson. 2022. 3rd ed. Bloomsbury Academic. [ISBN 978-1-3509-3363-5. 152 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]

This is a book about British English. Of course, much of the grammar is the same on either side of the pond. However, there are some differences (audience as a plural or singular noun, p. 33). Some vocabulary and phrasing are also British, such as “Use a full stop after the second inverted comma…” (p. 50). Occasional notes address US English spelling or style (in the unit on spelling mistakes, p. 122). International students often learn UK English and may find this book familiar, but US students may be better served by a textbook on American English.

Improve Your Grammar: The Essential Guide to Accurate Writing starts out with basic concepts, such as defining nouns and verbs, and progresses to more complex questions, such as the use of phrasal verbs (Unit 54, p. 110). While the early units should be familiar to readers who attended school in an English-speaking country, they may prove useful to international students. Some notes, such as on the different connotations of “could” and “can” (p. 80), and certain chapters, such as on collocations (Units 55 and 56, pp. 112–115), may be especially helpful to non-native English speakers.

Each two-page spread focuses on a very specific grammar or style question, as detailed as Linking: Causes (Unit 28, pp. 58–59) and Linking: Results (Unit 29, pp. 60–61). Examples and exercises within a unit often center around a theme, such as business (Chapter 9, pp. 20–21). Writing tips address the implementation of the unit’s focus, while other boxes warn of frequently confused words or remind students about the difference between spoken language and academic writing. References to other units help readers identify and quickly find information on other issues with which they may be struggling.

Since it includes an answer key, Improve Your Grammar could be used for self-study. However, more complex exercises may be resolved in more than one way. In such cases, the key lists a sample answer. Students who are using the book on their own may want to ask someone else to evaluate and/or correct their replies to these exercises.

The authors break down the English language into bite-sized units that progress from simple grammatical concepts to writing cover letters (or “covering letters” in UK English). Improve Your Grammar is well organized and laid out to make information easy to find. As noted above, however, it may be better suited for students at UK universities than their counterparts at US colleges.

Barbara Jungwirth

Barbara Jungwirth writes about medical topics (www.bjungwirth.com) and translates medical and technical documents from German into English (www.reliable-translations.com). She has written for print and online media since her high school days and majored in media studies.

Dancing with Robots: The 29 Strategies for Success in the Age of AI and Automation

Bill Bishop. 2022. Dundurn Press. [ISBN-978-1-4597-4902-3. 208 pages. US$21.99 (softcover).]

In his work as a coach, futurist, and speaker, Canadian author Bill Bishop helps people think about how to deal with what he calls the New Economy which he argues will replace the economy we now have as a result from the Industrial Revolution. Bishop has worked with more than 5,000 companies to help them think about how to succeed in the New Economy that includes artificial intelligence, automation, and robots. Dancing with Robots: The 29 Strategies for Success in the Age of AI and Automation explains what he feels humans need to do to succeed in this New Economy, and when he uses the term “dancing with robots”. Bishop means “dancing” in a metaphorical sense noting that humans will benefit in the future as they tap into the uniquely human ability to express metaphors—something a robot cannot do—and one of Bishop’s ideas about what skills we have that will help us succeed in the future.

Bishop addresses in his book the 29 strategies that humans can use to successfully live in the New Economy. Two of the strategies were of particular interest. One deals with increasing well-being while using fewer resources (p. 21), and the other deals with dematerialization (p. 49).

“Greater consumption equals greater happiness” (p. 22) is an idea that Bishop argues should become obsolete in the New Economy. Better results using fewer resources would be the new ideal with companies that recognize this being in high demand. Bishop argues that Google Navigator uses this approach as it helps a person get to a destination using fewer resources as they use the shortest possible route.

Dematerialization is another of Bishop’s strategies for the future. Bishop gives the example of using SodaStream to make sparkling water instead of buying Perrier bottled water and needing to go a store to buy Perrier and then recycling the bottles. With SodaStream, you go to a store less for your sparkling water and have less to recycle—reaching Bishop’s goal of dematerialization using fewer materials.

These two ideas of dematerialization and using fewer resources to achieve well-being provide a glimpse into Bishop’s thinking about success in the future and what companies and individuals can do to thrive in the New Economy. Bishop also notes what not to do to thrive in the future with an example of not relying too much on artificial intelligence, automation, and robots. Considering this idea of what Bishop argues we should not do, maybe we should be careful, for example, in our expectations in using robots and artificial intelligence to clean a house and drive us around.

Jeanette Evans

Jeanette Evans is an STC Associate Fellow; active in the Ohio STC community, currently serving on the newsletter committee; and co-author of an Intercom column on emerging technologies in education. She holds an MS in technical communication management from Mercer University and undergraduate degree in education.

Taxi from Another Plant: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe

Charles S. Cockell. Harvard University Press. [ISBN 978-0-674-27183-8. 288 pages, including index. US$26.95 (hardcover).]

Taxi drivers like to talk. Depending on the situation, you may find yourself in a conversation about their latest fare, why you’re in town, what’s happening in sports, or—heaven forbid—politics.

Astrobiologist Charles S. Cockell discovered that taxi drivers even like to talk about space and what, if anything, lives in it. They wonder if there are alien taxi drivers, whether aliens would inflict us with diseases or share their technology with us, and what it would be like to travel to or live on another planet. And that’s just the first three chapters.

Of the many questions asked throughout Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe, one from Chapter 10 is, “Will we understand aliens?” Cockell suggests that scientific method could be a basis for communication because it helps us develop theories, make predictions, and build things. We know the theories are accurate when the predictions come true, and the things that we build work as expected. He suggests that aliens, too, would use the scientific method to build the ships they’d travel to earth. That commonality would form the basis for learning their language, understanding their culture, and determining how their brains work.

After a news segment during another taxi ride, the driver commented on the many problems in the world. “‘Well we gotta get it sorted, right? There’s nowhere else to go,’ she suggested” (p. 90). Establishing settlements on the moon or Mars isn’t just a book or movie plot. In Chapter 7, Cockell lays out the concept of multiplanetary species and establishing an independent branch of humanity on another planet to avoid human extinction. Separate chapters in this book address the harsh, hazardous conditions on other planets and atmospheres that are not fit for humans. As you might surmise, traveling to another planet is significantly different than living on another planet.

If you’re intrigued by the concept of life beyond Earth and space exploration, then Taxi from Another Planet will be an interesting read for you. Inspired by conversations with drivers around the world, Cockell spins them into engaging chapters that bring together observations and ruminations about human history and scientific knowledge. And you’ll discover you’re not the only one who wonders if we’re alone in the universe.

Michelle Gardner

Michelle Gardner is a contract senior writer at Microsoft focused on their cloud portfolio. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism: Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach, and a master’s degree in Computer Resources and Information Management from Webster University.

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present

Johanna Drucker. 2022. University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-81581-7. 384 pages, including index. US$40.00 (hardcover).]

The title of Inventing the Alphabet: Origins of Letters from Antiquity to Present is a bit misleading, as it implies the contents will simply be a history of the invention of the alphabet, but instead the book reveals a history of thought that surrounds the historical investigations into the lineage of the alphabet. Which in truth is so much more interesting. Author Johanna Drucker identifies the book as historiography, rather than a history, and explains that the book’s goal is to examine these historical approaches to investigating the history of the alphabet, and in doing so Drucker believes that the story told will expose a history of Western thought.

There are nine chapters in Inventing the Alphabet covering a wide variety of topics regarding the historical investigations of the alphabet. The first chapter addresses the pervasive idea that the alphabet was invented by the Greeks and the line of thinking that led to this mistaken belief and the biases that formed it, which Drucker attributes to “a biased hierarchy of cultures” (p. 32). Drucker points out that for much of this history, antiquarians, scholars, historians, and the like, sought to find the biblical foundations for the alphabet, which caused some misinterpretations of facts as well as misidentified scripts.

There are missteps and wrong turns throughout the book, and the history explored in Inventing the Alphabet is steeped with bias. Again and again, the investigators try to bend the facts and findings to fit their beliefs. From trying to make it fit biblical stories, to trying to prove that there was no connection to any Semitic cultures, to fit anti-Semitic ideals. The investigations of this history only start to feel like it is rooted in evidence beginning with chapter 6, which explores the use of charts for visual comparison of alphabets, and chapter 9, which discusses the effects of modern archeological practices in the investigations on the history of the alphabet.

Some of the wrong turns prove to be quite interesting, such as the falsely documented magical, celestial, and angel scripts. However, the most interesting of all is the tale of the devil’s script which turns up in a grammar book published in 1538. It is not an image-heavy book, but the images support the content well and help the reader to visualize the scripts. The long titles of books referenced from the past are an endless source of entertainment, such as An Introduction To Languages, Literacy and Philosophical: Especially to the English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew; Exhibiting at One View Their Grammar, Rational, Analogy, and Idiom In Three Pars (p. 147). However, this is a book for serious history readers, it is a bit dry at times, and yet it provides great insight into historical approaches of the past, as the author intended. So, while a history of the alphabet would have been an interesting read, as Drucker points out, many such histories have already been written, and historiography that examines these histories is much more worthwhile.

Amanda Horton

Amanda Horton holds an MFA in Design and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) in the areas of design history, theory, and criticism. She is also the director of the Design History Minor at UCO.

World of Patterns: A Global History of Knowledge

Rens Bod. 2022. Johns Hopkins University Press. [ISBN 978-1-4214-4344-7. 400 pages, including index. US$65.00 (hardcover).]

Rens Bod tells readers that he “tried to highlight the widest possible variety of knowledge disciplines from as many parts of the world as possible within the limitations of a single book” (p. 303). Mission accomplished. This encompassing tome has something for everyone but is not for everyone. Scholars, researchers, historians, philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians will appreciate this weighty treatise. Knowledge management (KM) practitioners will need to work to form applications from this, but they are there.

To start, practitioners should read the first paragraph of the Introduction of World of Patterns: A Global History of Knowledge and then go straight to Chapter 1. After the first paragraph, the background information could put practitioners off from continuing. It is in the chapters that Bod weaves the historical narrative with stories, images, and rich multidisciplinary discourse. Certain stories will resonate more depending on the readers’ interests. While some will be naturally drawn to stories about language and grammar, others will gravitate toward the stories about medicine, math, or stories about the great philosophers and their contributions to the history of knowledge.

For practitioners, the chapter conclusions are where Bod makes history relevant to today’s KM challenges. Chapter 1, for example, provides an excellent summary on tacit knowledge, which is something practitioners strive to surface in organizations. His discussion in Chapter 4 about the postclassical period’s knowledge generation and reduction will resonate with those readers trying to wrangle and make sense of data’s ever-growing footprint. Chapter 5 gives hope to the practitioner regarding knowledge gaps as Bod explains how great divergences of knowledge over time are only temporary. “Sooner or later, useful patterns from one civilization are adopted by other civilizations they come into contact with” (p. 302). In his overall conclusion, Bod references failed knowledge. This disclosure is a relief. To know that throughout history failed knowledge has occurred and to see the examples provided by Bod (p. 310) is a reassurance to practitioners that KM can prevail despite its sometimes-spectacular failures.

Bod does two things well. He recognizes women’s contributions to the history of knowledge that continue to be largely missing from the narrative, and he achieves a history of knowledge that does not presume Europe or the West as the primary centers of knowledge. His intent in authoring World of Patterns was to include Asia, Africa, the Arab world, Oceania, and pre-Columbian America’s (p. 5) and that intent is fully met.

Liz Herman

Liz Herman, PhD, is an STC Associate Fellow and is a knowledge management practitioner who is certified in project management and technical communication. She works for Accenture Federal Services as a Senior Manager.

Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking

James C. Zimring. 2022. Columbia University Press. [ISBN 978-0-231-20138-4. 244 pages, including index. US$28.00 (hardcover).]

In a world of exponentially growing data in all subjects, fractions and percentages are more important for both official and casual communication. In Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking, James C. Zimring claims that everything from scientific research to new age beliefs are distorted by bias created from numbers. By omitting sample size, failing to create appropriate data, or even manipulating existing data, our society derives faulty conclusions. His analysis of how and why this happens examines evolutionary human psychology and how misperceptions can lead to propaganda and polarization of society.

In this twelve-chapter book divided into three sections, Zimring lays out his arguments about data misperceptions. In Part 1, he explains how anecdotal evidence can persuade people with a sample size too small for valid conclusions, called “ignoring the denominator” (p. 17). A relevant example of this occurred when then President Trump claimed the United States had more cases of Covid-19 than other countries because we were testing more people. Trump ignored the denominator by failing to communicate that our rate of infection (cases per total number of people tested) was higher than other countries. Zimring goes into more depth on possible ways the data could have been collected and analyzed to derive different conclusions.

Presentation of data is just as important as our perception of it. Zimring’s focus on human psychology and perception renders his title choice a bit misleading—the book might more accurately be called Partial Truth: How Fractions and Human Psychology Distort Our Thinking. One simple psychology concept introduced and carried is that of a heuristic. “A heuristic is a process by which human minds rapidly solve complex problems by replacing them with analogous but simpler problems” (p. 32). These mental shortcuts can play tricks on our minds and influence how we formulate conclusions. Confirmation bias is another important psychological concept that “… is not a belief. Rather, confirmation bias is a process by which we reinforce our beliefs—any beliefs—regardless of origin or accuracy” (p. 42).

Part 2 focuses on how heuristics, confirmation bias, and other tendencies influence the interpretation of data that often leads to faulty outcomes. Focus areas include identification of criminals, invasion of Iraq, interpretation of coded messages in ancient texts, new age methods, evolution/natural designer arguments and, most importantly, the physical sciences.

Part 3 discusses how we can try to influence the way people think and avoid harmful polarizations of disagreement often based on the same available data. Methodology includes “epistemic network models” (p. 178) of actors in simulated social networks enacting various scenarios. Social networks analyze the effects of human tendencies, including confirmation bias and heuristics to arrive at conclusions.

In conclusion, Zimring summarizes, “We need the availability heuristic, and confirmation bias, and all of the other forms of misperceiving the fraction described herein. They fuel our advances as well as lead to our demise” (p 201). A contradictory statement of sorts alludes to the complexity of trying to decipher something that should be logical and yet is not.

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.

Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia

Jason Brennan. 2020. John Hopkins University Press [ISBN 978-1-4214-4328-7.192 pages, including index. US$$19.95 (softcover).]

Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia by Jason Brennan is a no-holds-barred look at the side of academia that glossy brochures and pithy web site copy won’t show students. Many technical communicators once had the same dreams that new graduate students have: going to work at a respected university, conducting important, field-changing research, and teaching a classroom full of eager students. Those of us who succeeded and earned a job in academia know that the process of getting the PhD and getting that coveted tenure-track faculty position is a lot messier, more frustrating, and more difficult than we had imagined.

Brennan begins the book by citing a startling fact: “Roughly half [of graduate students] will quit or otherwise fail to earn their doctoral degree. Most graduates will not get a full-time academic job of any sort upon graduation” (p. 1). Despite this jarring introduction, Brennan’s mission in writing Good Work if You Can Get It wasn’t to scare away students; rather, it was to inform the prospective graduate student about what the process of earning a PhD is really like, and what their job prospects are upon graduation (p. 3).

This book covers a variety of topics that a potential graduate student would need to know, such as how to select the right graduate school, what the workload is like in graduate school, how to make yourself a competitive candidate on the job market, how to finance your graduate education, and even personal advice about dating in graduate school. Brennan’s advice is often blunt and uncomfortable to read, but in my more than 20 years of academia experience, it is largely an accurate picture of what the graduate student can expect.

Not all of Brennan’s information is full of doom and gloom, however. Much of his advice is about how to be successful by strategizing to make the most of your time in graduate school and leveraging your abilities into a job at the type of university that is best suited for your needs. I was fortunate enough to have a dissertation chair who gave me the unvarnished truth about academia, but I would have undoubtedly benefitted from reading this book before I had started graduate school. Like many other academics, I entered graduate school because I wanted a PhD beside my name. I unwittingly stumbled into my “calling.” However, many other graduate students won’t be as fortunate as I have been.

Good Work if You Can Get It is a must-read for bachelors and masters-level students in any academic discipline who are contemplating a career in academia. Completing a PhD requires a sizable investment in both time and money, and any prospective graduate student should go into their chosen PhD program with a clear understanding of the expectations and achievements required to finish the degree and gain a tenure-track position.

Nicole St. Germaine

Nicole St. Germaine is an associate professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. She specializes in intercultural technical communication in the health fields.