Which leads to an important point. Dictionaries are often seen as argument-settling arbiters of truth. But their job, Ms. Stamper notes, isn’t to say what something is, but to objectively and comprehensively catalog the many different ways words are used by real people.
Ms. Stamper has no patience for self-styled purists who quail at “irregardless” — an actual word, she notes. (She is O.K. with ending sentences with prepositions as well as — brace yourself — split infinitives.) But she also describes being caught up in some higher-stakes fights.
In the general run of things, few of us sip tomato juice for breakfast or as an aperitif, yet this savoury beverage forms 27% of all drinks orders on planes, with or without added vodka. According to one survey of more than 1,000 passengers, nearly a quarter of people will choose tomato juice when flying, even though they never drink it under other circumstances. This is exactly the kind of puzzle that interests Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology. In Gastrophysics, Spence notes that the “really special thing about tomato juice and Worcester sauce (both ingredients in a good bloody mary) is umami, the proteinaceous taste”. When Spence and colleagues investigated, they found that the blaring sound of being on an aeroplane – around 80-85 decibels of background noise – interferes with our ability to taste sweetness. That gin-and-tonic which tastes so sweet back on land is dulled in the air. By contrast, the noise actually increases our perception of the intensity of savoury umami flavours such as tomato juice. As we merrily ask the flight attendant to pour us a bloody mary, we have little notion that we may be driven to do so by what is happening to our ears as much as to our mouths.
To Be a Machine implicitly recognises that there is a vast, less extreme territory of bodily enhancement to be navigated – involving smart drugs, wearable technologies and other small steps towards bioengineered “post-humans”. But O’Connell chooses to zero in on the transhumanists’ desperation to escape what one biohacker refers to as “miserable biological lives”. With the help of anecdotes about his very young son, he signals his contrasting belief that our animal, fallible, bodily nature is the essence of being human. And isn’t it the very fact that we are here for so brief a time, he writes, that makes “life so intensely beautiful and terrifying and strange?” The privileged white male gods of Silicon Valley are obsessed with their own mortality, but is “dying of old age not … the ultimate First World Problem?”
So masterful is Chaon's command of this story that the character's abuse needs only the roughest of scenes sketched out for readers to know it was horrific. One of the author's lodestones in this book seems to be that even the kindest people can mete out the unkindest cuts.