Review: Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

by Kim on January 6, 2011 · 27 comments

Post image for Review: Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

Title: Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age
Author: William Powers
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Publisher: Harper
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: From the publisher, because it’s so succinct — “A crisp, passionately argued answer to the question that everyone who’s grown dependent on digital devices is asking: “Where’s the rest of my life?”

One Sentence Review: If you need a thoughtful and well-written book to remind you that it is, in fact, ok to step away from all the screens in your life, then this is the book.

Review: I think it’s been hard for me to decide what to say about Hamlet’s BlackBerry by William Powers because every time I sit down to write a review, thinking about the book makes me want to unplug from my computer and go do something, anything, else.

And that’s certainly not because the book was bad — the exact opposite in fact. It’s because Hamlet’s BlackBerry gave me the exact type of “authoritative” permission I’ve seemed to need in order to just step back, put all my connective gadgets away, and get away from the tentacles that technology has over my brain.

Powers starts out the book with an analogy that I just love: You are in a giant room that can hold more than a billion people, but the room is designed so that you can be in close proximity to everyone. As you walk around, people tap you on the shoulder all wanting the same thing — some of your time and attention. You have a personal zone in the room, but anyone can come in and out as they please. But at some point you want a break from all the tapping — what do you do?

In the analogy, find a door to the room and jump out. In real life, where we are faced with a multitude of screens that connect us to all of the tapping people who want our time and attention the solution doesn’t seem that simple.

Yet according to Powers, it can be, and people from as far back as Plato and even Shakespeare’s Danish prince Hamlet have been dealing, in their own ways, with this very issue.

The majority of Hamlet’s BlackBerry is dedicated to these folks — historical figures who have commented on technology and the way it changes the way we think. Seneca battled with finding inner space, and solved the problem by writing more. Similarly, Ben Franklin was concerned about connecting with others and reinventing himself. His solution? Guidelines and positively focused rituals.

The final section of the book is more personal, Powers reflecting on how to implement some of these philosophies in the digital age. While I’m not sure how practical all of his solutions — total digital detox weekends — are for me, I was appreciative of the way Powers showed that it is ok, even beneficial, to step back once in awhile and give yourself space away from the constant noise.

As a whole, I think the book filled a nice middle space in my reading on technology and your mind. It wasn’t quite as alarmist or critical as The Shallows by Nicolas Carr (which I started but didn’t finish because it was frustrating me), or as championing as, say, Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry felt balanced — excited about technology, appreciative of it’s benefits, but reasonable about the drawbacks and pragmatic about how to fit it into an increasingly connected world.

Other Reviews: Fizzy Thoughts | Bookin’ with Bingo |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Miss Remmers January 6, 2011 at 9:09 am

This looks like a very interesting book! I love the premise!

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Miss Remmers: It was interesting. I liked the way Powers showed that our sense of overwhelm-ness with technology isn’t a new thing — people have dealt with this for awhile, just at different scales and with different technology.

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Jen - Devourer of Books January 6, 2011 at 9:35 am

I’ve been somewhat better at unplugging recently, but I may need to read this to help me along the path.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Jen: I thought this book was a pretty quick read, and really sort of comforting. If unplugging is hard, then I think the book does have some valuable advice to think about.

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Vasilly January 6, 2011 at 10:33 am

Since I’m “daring to disconnect”, this sounds like something I should read. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Vasilly: Yes, I think this book would be perfect for your daring to disconnect project!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) January 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Wow, I had no idea that’s what that book is about. It sounds like one I should read.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm

bermudaonion: The book does take a different approach to the technology issue than many of the other ones I have read, and I really liked that. I hope you get to read it!

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Jeanne January 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I have no problem with being disconnected most weekends. My husband who works in IT, on the other hand, doesn’t. Since it’s his job, it’s hard to say anything. But I’m thinking we should read this book.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Jeanne: I think it could provide some valuable discussions points for you guys. I’m getting better about disconnecting on weekends, but can’t get myself totally off the grid like Powers talks about. I inevitably check my e-mail or spend time texting with people I don’t talk to often.

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Ashley January 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Your blog looks fantastic, which is why I’m passing the Stylish Blogger Award on to you! Visit my blog at http://treesandink.wordpress.com to see how to get the award!

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Ashley: Wow, thank you! I will head over and take a look.

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Erin January 6, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I really enjoy the title of this one — very appropriate! It might be good for me to read this book. I could definitely stand some convincing that it’s ok to unplug once in a while.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Erin: I like the title too — and the cover makes me smile. I love the little smiley face BlackBerry.

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Trisha January 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

This sounds like a fascinating read!

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Trisha: It really was. It was interesting to think about philosophers like Seneca and Plato in a new way and how they might apply to my life now.

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Jenny January 6, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I’ve had my eye on this for a while. It’s good to know that it’s not so alarmist — I wanted to read it, but didn’t want it to make me feel guilty for spending a lot of time on my computer (by choice, of course). :p

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Jenny: I didn’t feel guilty about being on the computer after reading the book; Powers talks about a lot of the good ways that technology can keep us connected. But I did feel like there were good reasons to step away from all the screens once in awhile to get some space from all the noise that comes from being connected as well.

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Jennifer January 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm

This is a topic that has frequently been fueling conversations in my classes lately. Maybe I’ll pick this book up and try to weave it into one of my final papers.

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Jennifer: I feel like this topic is going to be an ongoing discussion for people of my generation and younger who’ve grown up with technology that makes you constantly connected to others. I like the approach this book took to the issue, and it definitely could add some ideas to your thinking.

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Sally January 8, 2011 at 11:53 pm

I’m intrigued and have now added it to my ever growing wish list (as I type on a very much plugged in computer)! Thanks for the recommendation! I’m a new follower to your site, and really enjoy what you’re writing ~ keep up the good work!

This YouTube video has the same premise in “book” format. I sent it off to a friend who is an elementary librarian who just loved it as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4BK_2VULCU

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Sally: Ha ha, that video was funny! I am going to include it in my weekly link round up. One of the reasons I took such a long time to review this book is because every time I went to write about it I wanted to be away from my computer!

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softdrink January 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I think about this book constantly…usually when I’m on the computer, which I’m sure wasn’t the author’s intent. It’s not that hard to unplug, but it is hard to find a balance during the course of a normal day, when you’re surrounded by technology!

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Kim January 10, 2011 at 9:02 pm

softdrink: Exactly. I like that Powers doesn’t say to get rid of technology, but that there needs to be a way to balance it out and make space for the kind of thinking and personal time that being connected doesn’t allow you to have. I feel like the book is probably going on my reread pile, since those are lessons I need to get reminded about all the time.

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