Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer reading

Even though I'm no longer a student and have the summers off, I do work at an academic institution where the summers are quiet and there's a rush of activity in September. So I still like the concept of tackling a long book, or a book I've been meaning to read for a long time, in the summer. When I was in high school, the books were assigned - Bleak House, In Country, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Later, I took on books that seemed to need the boundaries of summer to push me to finish them: The Brothers Karamazov, Pale Fire, and last summer (as chronicled here) Infinite Jest.

This summer, I read James Gleick's book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. When I bought it, I unabashedly judged it by its cover. Usually, I'm not really interested in books whose titles follow this model - e.g., Cod: The Fish That Changed Everything, or The Tipping Point: Whatever its Subtitle Was. But this book didn't seem gimmicky or patronizing. And in this case, judging the cover was correct. While reading The Information, I was often challenged. I had to stop and read passages multiple times to understand them. And, despite having an advanced degree in a subject that includes the word information, I realized that I didn't expect a lot of what the book was going to cover, especially in the chapters covering the present day. There was a lot more about numbers than I expected, which just shows my bias toward verbal information - not the majority of information around today. Even the words I'm typing will be posted by some process involving a lot of zeroes and ones.

In any case, this is definitely a summer reading book: long, challenging, and probably best broken up with a shorter, lighter work here and there. There were (as usual) a couple of passages that stuck out to me. Two are related to information skills, or verging on information literacy (a documented professional and personal interest of mine). The first is a quotation from Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and computer scientist:

"The computer does not have that capacity [of a friend], and for our purposes that deficiency is an advantage. Instructions given the computer must be complete and explicit, and they must enable it to proceed step by step." (p. 349)

This is what I have a hard time communicating to college students. In their minds, Google understands what they're thinking, and in a lot of cases, it does. But it doesn't occur to them that there are imperfect processes, that don't involve intuition, going on behind that search. Which leads in to the second quotation, from Lewis Mumford:

"Unfortunately, 'information retrieving,' however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one's own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature." (p. 404)

In library stacks, of course, one would call this "browsing."

The last one - and I just now realized that all of these are Gleick quoting someone else - is from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (and points out to me what a huge hole I have in my reading, having never read any of his plays). It's about the burning of the library at Alexandria.

"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language." (p. 379)

I don't know exactly what I think about this idea, but I found it very interesting and moving.

Anyway. I recommend the book - it's full of things I didn't know before - but you may want to wait until you have a long stretch of time to devote to it.

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