Everyone wants to talk about privacy. The recent death of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after his roommate streamed his sexual encounter online, has highlighted how vulnerable privacy is and how high the stakes for it are. Christena Nippert-Eng’s Islands of Privacy gives us a rich perspective on this topic and challenges us to ask what, and how, we can keep anything to ourselves.
The book presents the results of Nippert-Eng’s nine-year study on privacy, during which she interviewed 74 people. Nippert-Eng is a professor of sociology, but she ditches scholar-ese in favor of lively, energetic writing free of jargon. (As someone who edits dissertations, I know this is no small feat.) At its most powerful moments, Islands of Privacy does what a work of social science does best: allow a person to connect her individual experience with broader phenomena. I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who forgets secrets in order to avoid blurting them out and who hides lowbrow magazines before company calls. It’s good to discover that some beliefs we hold and worries we have come from shared culture, not personal weirdness.