Book review: Clay Johnson's 'The Information Diet'

February 17, 2012

Let's get the worst out of the way: Clay Johnson's 'The Information Diet' isn't worth reading. There.

Since you're still reading, I imagine you'd like to know why. It's not because of what's in it. Actually there's a fair amount of interesting information in it. There's an attempt to explain why our public discourse is so miserable, and a clear statement of why it's not really anyone's fault. There's a potshot at the little hits of dopamine your cellphone and email client give you. There's the true statement that the information most folks pass through their heads is far from messy reality.

But then he tries to make a diet from these, coining the term 'infovegan'. His diet's what you would expect from someone who would choose such a term: from a limited scope, limit yourself even further. It's all based on an idea of trophic hierarchy, which works fine in ecology, and if all you're talking about is the successive filtering of news. But where in the tropic hierarchy are Henry James's collected prefaces? Sure, they're commentary on his novels, but they're the word from the horse's mouth on actually crafting novels. Or how about Carrol's Jabberwock or the works of Rabelais? They're pure fantasy, but both men clung close to the wellspring of language.

All I can think is that Johnson's been in politics too long, and it's blinkered him. I don't need an information diet, I need an information cuisine. Robert Atkins had a diet. Julia Child had a cuisine. The funny thing is, them as have cuisines tend to get along just fine, while those with diets are in constant need of a new one.

So the major reason not to read 'The Information Diet' is lack of vision. Johnson doesn't have it, because he ain't got a cuisine. I'm sure we'll see infodiet crazes once the metaphor's firmly cemented, but I don't want to be an 'infovegan'. I don't want to deny myself McDonalds hamburgers in favor of overcooked tofu. I made a stew of salmon, lentils, and beets tonight better than either. And I've got a pile of books at my elbow that make up a cuisine, and after this dud cake recipe, I'm off to stew up something proper.

I'll leave you with a book about the same size as Johnson's but chock full of cuisine: Ray Bradbury's 'Zen in the Art of Writing'. When you finish that, you can go try Ezra Pound's 'ABCs of Reading', Kenneth Clarke's 'Civilization', Garrison Keillor's 'Good Poems', and Christopher Alexander's 'The Nature of Order'.

Did you enjoy that? Try one of my books:
Nonfiction Fiction
Into the Sciences Monologue: A Comedy of Telepathy