Email, by Randy Malamud

John Gilbey enjoys a quirky tour of the communications tool we seem unable to do without

September 19, 2019
people work on laptops on balcony
Source: Getty

Whether you love it or loathe it, and I subscribe to both positions depending on the occasion, email has changed our lives at work and leisure over the past few decades. Job offers and refusals, meetings and failures, travels and disruption, delight and disappointment have all become in some ways subsumed within the conventions and structures of electronic mail.

Running to only 166 pages including notes and references, Email is a slender, small-format contribution to Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, described by the publisher as exploring “the hidden lives of ordinary things”. I sent my first email in 1984 – in a wildly different digital world – so I was intrigued to see how this compact volume could encompass such a diverse and rapidly evolving topic. Happily, once secure in the capable yet quirky hands of author Randy Malamud, any concerns quickly dissipated.

Anyone expecting yet another turgid treatise on the technical development and fundamental structure underpinning electronic mail will, thankfully, be disappointed. The book is more a highly personal exploration of how email has changed – and not changed – our approach to the way we think and work. The main body of the text is broadly, but not obsessively, structured around the format elements of emails themselves, with chapters called “Unread”, “Compose (draft)”, “Inbox” and “Attachment”, to name but a few.

Each of these explores an aspect of the behavioural change, social impact and unintended consequences around our use of – and often dependence on – email, along with the arguments of those standouts against the technology. This deeply human exploration of an overtly technological subject draws in a plethora of quotes and opinions – some familiar, some less so – which help to build a rich cross section of recent and current thought. While there are already innumerable tomes that will satisfy the technological archaeologist of the future, this involving and innovative volume’s aggregation of ephemera will no doubt delight the social historian.

Malamud is a conversational and agreeably offbeat companion as we explore the odder aspects of the subject. The chapter on email forwarding, for example, consists of a single page – indeed, a single sentence – to bring home the nature of the action as a means of passing responsibility. Similarly, the section on junk mail is an elegantly crafted piece distilling into a couple of pages pretty much every hackneyed phrase and cliché employed by the purveyors of chain letters and unwelcome missives.

In a longer work, this teasing style might begin to grate, but in the context of a high-impact, quick-hit title the snappy prose and keen engagement help pull together the text into an engaging and successful snapshot of collective experience. There are many things it isn’t: a definitive history, a finely balanced philosophy or an irrefutable analysis; but by placing the book firmly as an unashamedly personal view, the author provided us with a gleefully irreverent narrative which leaves the reader with a smile and more questions. Hopefully, I’ll meet Randy Malamud one day and get a chance to discuss his book over a beer – which I suspect would be a very natural extension of the reading experience.

John Gilbey teaches in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University.


Email
By Randy Malamud
Bloomsbury
184pp, £9.99
ISBN 9781501341908
Published 19 September 2019

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