Review of Borg Like Me by Eric Siegel

Eric Siegel, former Director of the New York Hall of Science (site of the annual World Maker Faire) sent me this review that he felt inspired to write after finishing Borg Like Me. He posted it on my Amazon page and on Goodreads. I asked his permission to repost it here. I was very touched by it, even if he’s totally wrong about Brian Eno. 🙂 Thanks, Eric!

If you’d like your own copy of Borg Like Me, order it directly from me and you’ll get a bunch of other goodies, including a letterpress printed bookplate (design by my son, Blake Maloof), a bookmark featuring art from the book, and a mail-art-decorated envelope featuring rubber stamps that I designed.

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Do you know Gareth Branwyn? If you’ve gone to any of the Maker Faires east or west in the past decade or so, you have certainly seen him and if you’ve seen him, you’re bound to have noticed. My first sighting at the World Maker Faire in NY was of a tall man with flashing LEDs apparently embedded in his bald scalp (a costume designed by Diana Eng of Project Runway). He had a stooped, scholarly way of carrying himself, and when I talked to him, he peered intently up at me through his glasses. In short order, we were confiding with each other about amazing stuff we had seen at the Faire, good-looking makers, and common experiences around music and drugs.

You mean THESE embedded LEDs?

You mean THESE embedded LEDs? Photo by Greg Hayes.

Because of my own personal experiences (we have a daughter with Cerebral Palsy), I am very attentive to physical disabilities. I am a little obsessed with the technologies and other ways and means in which people, disabled and otherwise, enhance and sustain our lives and our own attitudes toward dis/ability. I even created an exhibition called Human + about technology and human ability that is currently touring the country. Gareth’s personal relationship with his disability (he has an extreme and intrusive form of arthritis) is straightforward without guile or misdirection.

So, with a budding friendship with Gareth and my interest in disability and technology, I was thrilled when I got a copy of Gareth’s new book, Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems. Oddly enough given the technological sheen suggested by the title, it is a trade size paperback book, one of the few that I’ve actually bought in the past several years. Gareth’s frankness is catching, so I will share that the book was installed with honor in our throne room, which I found offered the perfect intervals for dipping into the book and savoring each of the chapters.

The book mostly consists of collected articles that Gareth has written for various publications and web sites over the past 20 years. Each essay is graced by a short introduction in which the current Gareth reflects on the circumstances that shaped the writing. Gareth describes himself as an “extreme extrovert,” which conjures images of back-slapping, glad-handing banter. It is probably more accurate to say that Gareth is obsessive sharer, happiest when he is revealing and examining some surprisingly intimate experience. If he weren’t so disarmingly interested in everything around him, the essays would run the risk of being mawkish, self-involved, or irrelevant. As it is, the extremity of his personal circumstances, the losses he has suffered, the trials of his physical disabilities are placed like boulders in the rushing river of his fascination with the world.

BLM-Jacket_v2

Borg Like Me isn’t entirely dependent on whether the reader shares Gareth’s preferences for Eno, Cyberpunk, and Blade Runner, and his fascination with the freedom of expression potentially offered by technology. But the reader can be left feeling a bit distanced from the essays if s/he doesn’t share these enthusiasms. Gareth does his best to convey the awesome experience of falling in love to a Brian Eno composition, and paints the music in cosmic terms. I can take or leave Eno so went I went to Spotify to check it out and was thoroughly (and predictably) unmoved. Similarly, I missed the whole ‘zine movement and have a hard time relating to the ardor with which Gareth describes the impact of these self-published broadsides on the world.

But these are the relatively rare distancing moments in this collection. The depth of Gareth’s frankness and apparent guilelessness in the face of extreme suffering is thoroughly mesmerizing. His description of the psychosis brought on by a bad drug reaction after open heart surgery is as vivid a description of madness as I have ever encountered, and also hilarious. He is convinced in his hallucinations that the world’s deep structure is made of koosh balls, and in the interstices between the balls, a loosely knit collection of 50’s wrought iron lawn furniture. He talks of draining wounds with insouciance, and if it seemed like an effort, I would say that he bore all his wounds and his tribulations with inspiring courage. But it does not seem like an effort when he writes with heartbreaking clarity about surviving the abandonment and subsequent suicide of his beloved wife. It all seems part of the fabric of a deeply felt and deeply lived life.

His enthusiasms are wide and passionate, if generally geeky. He uncovers the quirky characters who founded the Jet Propulsion Lab in 1950’s Pasadena. He makes a convincing case that William Blake, his beloved Romantic poet and artist, was a forefather of the 20th century self-publishing revolution. He publishes a catalog of “saints” generated by readers of Boing Boing, a geek-friendly online zine and blog with which Gareth has had a long and fruitful association. Gareth forthrightly recognizes the unsurprising fact that Boing Boing’s readers prefer their saints with penises, rather than otherwise, but the very act of surfacing this group’s heroes shows the range of their passions, from physics to tantric Buddhism to punk.

As much as Gareth identifies with musicians, artists, makers, technologists, and philosophers, he is above all a writer. His form of “making” is shaping prose that is rich with his personality but seems effortless and transparent. Borg Like Me includes “Gareth’s Tips on Suck-less Writing,” a genuinely useful guide to lucid writing, with a clear bias toward precision and clarity directed at budding journalists. I’m not sure how William “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” Blake would respond to Gareth’s advice: “Is this the simplest most straightforward way of saying this? If not, toss or revise.” But for the kind of writing that Gareth is teaching, his advice is excellent.

The most deeply felt parts of the book are about intimacy, sharing love, music, hope, community, and the early hope of sex. This intimacy is distributed pretty evenly throughout the book, and not just isolated to the moments of romance. Illness and disability, desktop publishing with his beloved wife and son, a night at the movies, online communities are all shot through with the most disarming sense of revelation and Gareth’s eagerness to take the reader by the shoulders, shake him a bit, and say “this is ME, this is who I am. Who are YOU?”

For all of its self-revelation, the book does not have the narcissistic flavor of the contemporary memoir. I believe that is because Gareth is defined as much by his passions as by his personal tribulations and triumphs. By sharing his interests, he is sharing himself and inviting us to live more intensely, more openly, and with only a reasonable regard for the weaknesses that plague us all.

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