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Book Reviews

Good Health Online: A Wellness Guide for Every Canadian

by Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead

The Internet for 50+: The Complete Guide for Every Canadian Over 50

by Andrew Dagys

Genealogy Online: Researching Your Roots

by Elizabeth Powell Crowe

Net Travel: How Travelers Use the Internet

by Michael Shapiro

The Online Epicure: Finding Out Everything You Want to Know About Good Cooking on the Internet

by Neil J. Salkind

The Internet is fast becoming the global library: an information resource unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Don’t know which refrigerator to buy? How to get in touch with childhood friends? Which store might sell pomegranate juice? Well, goes the chorus, get online! I’ve even heard that advice – a tribute to the late-20th-century techno-hype industry, I suppose – from people who’ve never even touched computers.

Cyberspace does hold unimaginable amounts of information, on more topics than anyone could hope to list. But, as anyone who spends time online will tell you, much of that information is badly organized, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Provided you know where to look, the Net can be astonishingly useful. It’s just tough to know where to look. Happily, there’s no shortage of help; bookstore shelves are brimming with online research guides.

Considering that it comes from Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead (authors of the woefully unfocused Canadian Internet Handbook), Good Health Online is a pleasant surprise. After a brief, clear introduction to the issues surrounding online health information (accuracy, self-diagnosis, support groups, and so on), the book starts delivering the goods. First, Carroll recalls how, one morning in early 1997, he lost muscle control in half his face. Thinking that he was suffering from Bell’s Palsy (a relative with the condition had exhibited similar symptoms), he searched for, and found, a wealth of relevant data online. He read theories about what causes Bell’s Palsy, lists of possible treatments, personal accounts of people in various stages of recovery…. By six o’clock that evening, when he saw his doctor, he had already joined a support group.

It all sounds wonderfully empowering, and, in this case, it was. But the symptoms of Bell’s Palsy are very similar to the symptoms of stroke. As Carroll admits at the end of the second chapter, the self-diagnosis was a stupid move that could have gone tragically wrong. The authors do repeat the warning several times, but not forcefully enough to really deter anyone from playing doctor.

The rest of Good Health Online is clear and easy to follow. It reviews dozens of mainstream sites, but it also suggests sources, like the technical Medline database, that people might otherwise shy away from. Through it all, Carroll and Broadhead offer realistic advice about what people should expect to accomplish online.

The Internet for 50+ isn’t nearly as successful. As many Internet books do, this one begins with a tour through the online world – choosing an ISP, e-mail, the Web, browsers, USENET – before getting down to business. Not a bad idea, given that the book is aimed at an age group less likely than most to be comfortable with technology. Unfortunately, it’s done poorly.

At the best of times, the Internet is an ugly, intimidating beast: a mess of misconfigured TCP/IP stacks, corrupted plug-ins, and uncooperative modems. A guidebook aiming itself at the technologically timid, then, had better take the time to explain things. The Internet for 50+ doesn’t. It races through the introduction at exactly the wrong pace; it’ll bore those who know the Net already, and it’ll sail right over the heads of newbies.

In the chapters dealing with online content, the book gets downright patronizing. It tells readers to think about diversifying their investment portfolios, it explains how to write a résumé, and it offers a list of reasons to consider moving into an apartment. In short, The Internet for 50+ spends more time on insulting, simplistic lifestyle advice than it does on the Net.

If you’ve used a search engine to look up someone’s name lately, you’ve no doubt run into a few genealogical research sites. Searching on a word like “Jones,” for example, will bring up page after page of ancient marriage records and family trees. All fascinating stuff, but intimidating, too. For the aspiring genealogist, it’s tough to know where to begin.

Enter Genealogy Online, a book that aims to clear up the confusion. Like The Internet for 50+, this book begins with a brief tour through the technology. The explanations here are more thorough, but still too dense for beginners. And, as with 50+, the section is irrelevant to seasoned Internet users. Everyone would be better served, I think, by getting on with the ancestor research and leaving the beginners’ instruction to the Dummies books.

After the shaky start, the rest of Genealogy Online is terrific. It points to hundreds of useful sources – from mailing lists to university databases to death-certificate archives – taking the time to explain what each one is good for. And it also tells readers where and how to find new sources. With the field growing as quickly as it is, that’s an especially helpful touch. This is a dense, information-packed volume, and the writing is a bit leaden. But for anyone interested in personal history, it’s a winner.

Net Travel avoids temptation, and doesn’t even try to provide an entry-level guide to the Internet. Instead, assuming a working knowledge of the basic technologies, it plunges right into the good stuff. Flight-reservation systems that were once the exclusive domain of travel agents are now publicly accessible, and some of them are even user-friendly. The book lists and reviews them, explaining who can deliver tickets overnight, who accepts credit cards, and who’s best at which services.

Even for those who don’t want to go that deep into travel-agent territory, this is a useful volume. It tells where to search for obscure adventure holidays, where to find the best review sites, and how to connect with others who’ve made the trip you’re contemplating. Most importantly, though, Net Travel never loses sight of the big picture: travel is supposed to be fun.

Food – gourmet food, anyway – is supposed to be fun, too. Unfortunately, The Online Epicure is in too much of a hurry to stop and taste many of the goodies. Oh, there are some brief sidebars reprinting factoids found on food web sites, but this is still more of an annotated bibliography than a guidebook.

For the most part, we just get sprayed with URLs. Each site gets a paragraph listing its features, but there’s very little comparison, and hardly any excitement. And, perhaps most telling, there’s not a single food photograph in the entire book. Any volume that can turn the hunt for new treats and great booze into a dry series of screenshots is to be avoided, if you ask me.

The Net is home to so much information, and is growing so quickly, that even the best of these guides is just a start. But most human knowledge is still kept on paper, and probably will be for our lifetimes. Good as some of these books are, they miss most of what’s available offline. Anyone logging in to look for answers would do well to remember that.