Monday, October 31, 2011

book review: The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman

The backstory: The Tyranny of Email is one of the readings this semester in a course I'm teaching on how technology impacts our lives and the world.

The basics: Aptly subtitled "The Four Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox," The Tyranny of Email is one part history of email (and written communication) and one part fix for email over-dependency.

My thoughts: I didn't pick this book for my course, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I began reading it and planning to teach it. I'm fascinated by technology and its power to connect us, and I did not consider myself to think email is tyrannical (at least for me.)

In many ways, The Tyranny of Email is the tale of two books for me. I was fascinated by Freeman's history of written communication. The first chapter focuses on the evolution of the postal service from the pony express. As someone who finds such joy in receiving mail, it was fascinating to see its beginnings. I knew bits and pieces, but Freeman fleshed out the history beautifully. Next came the evolution of the telegraph, something I'm only familiar with through books and movies. It is hard for me to imagine the actual poles and wires being built to send messages, but again, I found it fascinating.

As the history shifted to the more modern means of written communication and computers, I was less fascinated, but more so because I'm so much more familiar with the history of computers and email. Once Freeman explained the evolution of written communication, he moved onto his manifesto for a slow communication movement. He thinks big, and his ideas stem from how severe he feels our use of email is.

Freeman's argument fell apart for me here because he failed to distinguish between home email and work email. While I have the ability to check my work email from my phone, I rarely do on nights and weekends. I have a healthy work-life balance. For me, email (and social networking) are a way to keep in touch with friends and family far away. Freeman urges his readers to invite friends over from dinner rather than email them. While I would love to have dinner with my friends scattered across the country, it simply isn't feasible on a daily basis.

I understand where he's coming from; he's drowning in email. I'm not. He advises readers to use the phone instead. My response? Phone calls are far more disrupting to my work than emails. Yes, I keep my work email open all day, but I don't get notifications. I check it as I need to.

One of the reasons I opted to review this book here (after reading it, discussing it and then reading students papers on it), is the very idea of book blogging. Freeman is so busy listing the dangers of email and technology disconnecting us, when I have found so many wonderful connections through technology and my blog. I love to read, and I read more than most of my friends and family. I prioritize reading differently. Through technology, I've found others who have the same priority of reading. I'm able to take one of my favorite activities, which is quite solitary by nature, and share it. Would I like to do so face-to-face with people in Des Moines? Absolutely. Would I still do it here? Yes, because so few of you, my readers, are in the same city.

The verdict: Despite my issues with Freeman's view of email as tyrannical, I found the historical context fascinating. The Tyranny of Email is not a book I agreed with, but it is a book I'm glad I read, and it is certainly not without merit.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 221 pages
Publication date: October 20, 2009 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it

Want to read it to see for yourself? Buy The Tyranny of Email from Amazon.

Now tell me: do you find email to be tyrannical?

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I don't think that email is a bad, intrusive thing, and I love the immediacy of getting emails a lot more than I love talking on the phone, so I would probably not agree with the views expressed in this book either. I know a few people who have trouble with email and whose inboxes are a nightmare, so this one might sit differently with them! Great review today, and Happy Halloween!

  2. I don't find it tyrannical at all. My work email is only accesible at work, and I'm pretty ruthless about junk email, so I don't get that much email at home. And I'd much rather email than talk on the phone!

  3. Sounds good but I also agree with your thoughts about technology. There are many benefits as long as we can balance it well. I'd be interested in the beginning of the book... I love checking the mail every day even though I know it'll usually be bills or junk lol


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