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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / history


The Information

James Gleick

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To purchase The Information

Title: The Information
Author: James Gleick
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 426 pages
Availability: The Information - US
The Information - UK
The Information - Canada
The Information - India
  • A History, a Theory, a Flood

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Our Assessment:

A- : entertaining, well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 18/2/2011 Josh Rothman
The Guardian . 30/4/2011 Ian Pindar
The Independent . 15/4/2011 Andy Martin
The LA Times . 13/3/2011 David L. Ulin
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/3/2011 Freeman Dyson
The NY Times A 7/3/2011 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/3/2011 Geoffrey Nunberg
The Observer . 24/4/2011 Philip Ball
The Telegraph A- 8/4/2011 Tim Martin
Wall Street Journal . 1/3/2011 John Horgan
The Washington Post . 13/5/2011 Anthony Grafton

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gleick's account is extraordinary in its sweep (.....) Gleick sees all of these inventions and individuals as part of one big story: the story of the invention of information as a way of thinking about the world and its contents. For Gleick, the essence of information is abstraction. (...) Gleick's story is beautifully told, extensively sourced, and continually surprising, whether or not you find it ultimately convincing." - Josh Rothman, Boston Globe

  • "Gleick's history of information really comes alive when he describes Babbage's intellectual correspondence with the remarkable Augusta Ada Byron (.....) This final section, the "flood" part, is something of a letdown because it lacks political awareness." - Ian Pindar, The Guardian

  • "Gleick is the most even-handed and egalitarian writer in the world, because just about everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and at the same time, they are all deprived of any purpose other than to serve as monotonous drones in the empire of information. The Information mirrors its subject by being once irresistible and almost unbearable. But Gleick welcomes a high degree of self-contradiction and incoherence." - Andy Martin, The Independent

  • "The key to such an argument is perspective, which is often in short supply when it comes to the information culture, with its tendency to inspire either paeans or jeremiads. Gleick, however, is too smart for that; he's all about the forest, not the trees. (...) In places, the science can be overwhelming (.....) The density, however, is unavoidable if we want to understand Shannon's thinking, or why Gleick frames him as an essential figure in The Information" - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Information is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. (...) His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of The Information is impossible. (...) If Mr. Gleick has one overriding goal it is to provide an animated history of scientific progress, specifically the progress of the technology that allows information to be recorded, transmitted and analyzed." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Gleick ranges over the scientific landscape in a looping itinerary that takes the reader from Maxwell’s demon to Godel’s theorem, from black holes to selfish genes. Some of the concepts are challenging, but as in previous books like Chaos and Genius, his biography of Richard Feynman, Gleick provides lucid expositions for readers who are up to following the science and suggestive analogies for those who are just reading for the plot. (...) Such errors are mostly minor. But Gleick’s tendency to neglect the social context casts a deeper shadow over the book’s final chapters, where he turns from explicating information as a scientific concept to considering it as an everyday concern, switching roles from science writer to seer." - Geoffrey Nunberg, The New York Times Book Review

  • "There are few writers who could accomplish this with such panache and authority. Gleick, whose 1987 work Chaos helped to kickstart the era of modern popular science, is one." - Philip Ball, The Observer

  • "This wise, quirky, non-linear book is the story of an elusive concept that most of us take for granted. (...) Considered as a whole, though, this is a work of rare penetration, a true history of ideas whose witty and determined treatment of its material brings clarity to a complex subject." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph

  • "No author is better equipped for such a wide- ranging tour than Mr. Gleick. Some writers excel at crafting a historical narrative, others at elucidating esoteric theories, still others at humanizing scientists. Mr. Gleick is a master of all these skills." - John Horgan, Wall Street Journal

  • "The book explains more fully and more systematically than any other how the foundations of our information order were laid. Gleick is a technological determinist, in a moderate way. He argues elegantly that the telegraph promoted everything from the weaving of networks to the building of skyscrapers and the creation of a new "telegraphic" style of communication. It seems a pity, accordingly, that he does not say more about the ways in which information theory and its technical progeny have changed our ways of reading and writing, doing research and listening to music." - Anthony Grafton, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Information James Gleick looks at this very basic concept and how it has come to play an increasingly prominent role in human life, especially through technology. Gleick considers both theory and practice in this far-ranging tour, discussing -- among much else -- communication via everything from drumbeat to telegraph, attempts to collect and organize information, DNA, and quantum computing. His approach is for the most part chronological, with each chapter built up more or less around one major concept or contributor or technological advance. Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Claude Shannon, and many others figure prominently, as Gleick shifts back and forth between history and theory and describes the fates of both individuals and technologies.
       As basic as 'information' is, it also proves to be an elusive concept -- in part because it can encompass so much: arguably (and Gleick's book does make the case for that), everything is information. But mere information isn't of that much use: it must be retrievable and conveyable. Writing was a huge first step in allowing civilization to record and maintain information, as well as being able to transmit it. But even fundamental next steps were often not immediately obvious, as Gleick repeatedly show, whether in the first alphabetically ordered dictionary or the beginnings (and then hasty demise) of the telephone book. One consequence of the immense volume of information now available at our fingertips is the importance of methods and technologies of 'filter and search'.
       Among the more amusing examples Gleick offers are of technological advances that were seen as of limited use, or threatening, including the telegraph and telephone, with their spread and uses often unanticipated. Gleick gives a good sense of the transformative power and consequences of many of these advances, showing that the Internet is hardly the first information-technology that was so disruptive and influential. And it's fascinating to recall some of the quickly superseded technologies, such as the first telegraphs -- optical rather than electronic, as men in towers signaled to each other, a moderately effective means of long-distance communication, but rendered essentially completely obsolete by electronic/wire telegraphy.
       Gleick shows that concepts such as order and randomness, as well as noise, have always been a factor in information-issues, and offers a useful historical tour of how they have been addressed and used over the centuries. The Information balances hard(er) science and math with easily understood examples, conveying a great deal that even scientifically less confident readers will get the gist of.
       The book is something of a whirlwind tour, Gleick pressing on at considerable speed. Yet he conveys a great deal of information, and that in fairly orderly fashion: the book reads very well and is tremendously enjoyable. Gleick has an eye and ear for the catchy detail and observation, and he does not dwell too long on any single subject or person -- the narrative never bogs down. If ultimately it is a packed sort of compendium-history -- a collection of facts, theories, and personalities -- that rarely delves too far into the real nitty-gritty (or the cogs of the machines), it nevertheless offers a broad and fascinating foundation, impressive in its reach.
       A very good read, certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2011

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The Information: Reviews: James Gleick: Other books by James Gleick under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer James Gleick was born in 1954. He has written numerous acclaimed books, generally on science-related subjects.

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© 2011 the complete review

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