by Unknown | 10/04/2008 02:19:00 PM
I don't write formal book reviews for this site any more, because I have a frustrating tendency to put off such work for months, but I thought I'd share a few brief thoughts about my co-blogger Mark Safranski's new book The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War, of which he was kind enough to provide me with an advance copy. (You can read Mark's own take on the book here.) The book is only some sixty pages long, and makes for a nice afternoon's read even if you're an achingly slow reader like I am.

First, let's start with the obvious and most critical point: this book originated on a blog, more specifically as a blog roundtable. As such, the very fact that it's made it into print is a significant leap forward for academic bloggers across the net, and one we should cheer enthusiastically. Further, it's clear from reading the book that the roundtable turned up considerable new insights; I particularly liked essays by Mark and the blogger "Lexington Green." Mark's done an excellent job of editing the various pieces, providing an excellent, if brief, introduction, and securing the participation of the two greatest living experts on Boyd, Frans Osinga and Chet Richards. He should be very proud of his work for these and many other reasons.

The only real problem I have with the book has to do with something that I think is only an issue because of the translation from blog to book. The John Boyd Roundtable is a book about another book by Frans Osinga, which is in turn a book about a military thinker, John Boyd. That's a lot of moving parts to convey to a lay reader (which I most certainly am in the field of military history), and unlike on a blog, where you can simply link to Osinga's book or to a Wikipedia profile of Boyd, all the connections need to be spelled out in the text itself. I didn't get quite enough of this with regard to either Boyd or Osinga. After reading the book, I can tell you who Boyd's major influences were and how his work relates to modern psychology, but I can't give you a short lay description of his theories or rattle off major facts from his biography (for instance, I didn't even learn what he died of). Likewise, I know that Osinga synthesized the major points of Boyd's theory into book form through an exhaustive examination of his personal papers, but I don't know what Osinga's major argument in the book is. In order to really appreciate The John Boyd Roundtable, I think I'd have to read both Boyd's lengthy presentations and Osinga's book, which is unfortunate because most lay readers won't take the time to do all of that. This problem could be fixed fairly easily with a lengthier and more comprehensive introduction and by moving a lengthy article by Osinga, included at the end of the book, to the beginning, so readers could appreciate the fine points of Osinga's argument before reading the original essays that expound on it.

That criticism aside, The John Boyd Roundtable is a fine book. If I'm not fully able to engage with its arguments, it's more because of my own lack of knowledge of military history and systems analysis than through any failure of communication by Mark or the authors. It deserves a wide readership and bodes well for future publications by Mark and the authors included in the collection.




Blogger mark on 10/05/2008 9:54 PM:

Hi Jeremy,

Fantastic review, thank you!

Regarding your criticisms, I believe that you are spot on in many of them. The publisher was experimenting here on a blog to book conversion and part of that process was figuring how that would work in practice. Hopefully, there will be many more "blog books" and other authors can improve upon our trailblazing.

Given the risky nature ( as a business investment) the page limit that I was given as editor was very tight. Book sales have exceeded all expectations for such an esoteric subject and in retrospect, we probably could have shot for 100 pages and addressed the general reader more effectively(we expected a very small audience of specialists already familiar with Boyd) and still been good form the publisher's perspective. Lesson learned.

Another change I'd have liked to have made was to have had essays that dealt more with the science and the math. Boyd, an engineer by training, was very deep into theoretical physics and pure mathematics ( with the assistance of Dr. Chet Richards on the latter). Godel and Heisenberg became influences on Boyd's ideas about conflict and strategy because Boyd actually wrestled with their equations. We did not bring that aspect out very effectively in either the online roundtable or the book and right now it can only be read in Osinga's Science, Strategy and War( where it takes up a significant section of Frans' very weighty tome).

I'd also have liked to have some critical voices included. Several had been invited but refused. One, Wilf Owen, worked up and expanded his online roundtable piece to a article for the prestigious semi-official British journal RUSI. Would have been nice to have been able to include that.

Again, thank you for the review and I'd like to encourage any PH members to consider Nimble Books if they have book projects in mind.