REVIEW: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers
It was perhaps our most spirited discussion, as it began over email before the meeting even happened on Thursday, and in the meeting our spoken volume was higher than usual. Feelings about the book were almost as strong as feelings about the larger issue of social media and privacy, something that had been in the news that same day as unofficial presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was facing questions over her right to a “zone of privacy” and her use of a personal cell phone during her time working as Secretary of State.
It turns out that among the eight of us sitting at the table, only Monte and Ed are on Facebook, with Ted being on only so he can moderate his employer’s page. Adrian has recently joined LinkedIn. Everyone else is only connected to email.
With this limited-social-media crowd being understood, Ed stood up first in order to speak in favor of the book. “It is spot-on” for these times we are in, he said. He thought that he might be the only one to feel that way, and it did seem that the group was overwhelming against him, but the nuance of feeling among us came out as the discussion continued.
We took up an intriguing point that Art had raised by email: A friend who has read the book suggested that the author may have been styling the writing as if a 20-something young woman (like Mae) were writing it. I don't know if that was the author's intention, but the style of writing does seem to have a somewhat immature feel to it.
I repeated some of what I had written to Art in response, mainly that I think there is an immature aspect inherent to all of social media because of the proclivity for exhibitionism, self-aggrandizement, and acting without thinking. Of course, this is true of many things. Read the “Comments” section of any online newspaper or magazine, and one gets the sense that perhaps providing a forum for people to talk about the issue isn’t such a good idea. Maybe it's the demography of who uses social media. Maybe it's the language that people use in talking about it (“selfies” and “likes”). But even as I read the book, I found myself getting angry that the “Wise Men,” and even Mae as she slid into the abyss, had no second thoughts about the need for everyone to share everything, or that the rest of us have a right to know everything. “Sharing is caring,” Mae said, but no one in this book was sharing because they cared; they did it out of a self-serving interest, either to assuage their own paranoia about what others were doing or saying, or to promote themselves and feed their egos.
Monte suggested that maybe the book is written in the way it is because the author knows what sells. He cited the statistic that the average reading level of the U.S. population is at a sixth-grade level.
The question arose if there was anything like this in our past. Did anyone have the same negative feelings about, say, the rotary telephone? No, said Ron. That was a great step forward in our ability to communicate with one another.
We all agreed that this was an interesting topic and could make for interesting reading. Art noted in his email that “the topic of the intersection of technology with loss of privacy [is] compelling and highly pertinent to the times in which we live.” Jack, also by email, commented that “The implications of constant connection through technology, dependence on technology for social networking, and substituting tech for face-to-face communication are all worth exploring in detail in a good speculative fiction novel. This is not it.” He blames that on the writing: “I…was not impressed with the writing. It was slow-moving, characters poorly developed, and the payoff at the end lacked clarity or even much drama.” Even Ed, who did enjoy the book, would not recommend it to anyone, because it was not well-written.
Nevertheless, it is a reflection of our times. Ted compared it to The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (which he enjoyed more than The Circle) because both books are a warning against the unconsidered, complete surrender of our lives to electronic convenience and sense of entitlement. “Was this a novel or warning?!?!” asked Monte. It was “Scary, plausible, possible, in process.”
The ratings were low. Ron, who had been unhappy about the book before we even read it, decided to raise his score just because of the good conversation it generated. He gave it a 0 (ZERO with an exclamation point!) all around. On average, we gave it a 2.35 for both Interest and Readability, and even though two people said they would read another of Eggers’s books, most said they probably would not. John was forgiving. “I would try reading another of his books. Even the Rolling Stones had a couple of bad songs,” he reasoned. “I’m not going to ding the guy for one bad book.”
We welcomed Angelo back to the table after a lengthy health-related hiatus. He was looking good, feeling good, and we were happy to see him. He read this book while recuperating from some serious surgery, and understandably, his reason for not wanting to read another book by Eggers was because this one held bad associations for him. We will gladly keep Eggers off the candidate books list for that reason alone.