Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.

Our Data, Our Selves: Data Mining for Self-Knowledge

If you haven’t read Gary Shteygart’s Super, Sad, True, Love Story, I would encourage you to go, sell all, buy and do so.  I guess I would call it a dystopian black comedic satire, and at one point I would have called it futuristic.  Now I’m not so sure.  The creepy thing is that about every other week there’s some new thing I notice and I kind of say to myself “Wow–that’s right out of Shteyngart.”  This latest from the NYTimes is another case in point.  The article traces the efforts of Stephen Wolfram to use his immense collection of data from the records of his email to the keystrokes on his computer to analyze his life for patterns of creativity, productivity, and the like.

He put the system to work, examining his e-mail and phone calls. As a marker for his new-idea rate, he used the occurrence of new words or phrases he had begun using over time in his e-mail. These words were different from the 33,000 or so that the system knew were in his standard lexicon.

The analysis showed that the practical aspects of his days were highly regular — a reliable dip in e-mail about dinner time, and don’t try getting him on the phone then, either.

But he said the system also identified, as hoped, some of the times and circumstances of creative action. Graphs of what the system found can be seen on his blog, called “The Personal Analytics of My Life.”

The algorithms that Dr. Wolfram and his group wrote “are prototypes for what we might be able to do for everyone,” he said.

The system may someday end up serving as a kind of personal historian, as well as a potential coach for improving work habits and productivity. The data could also be a treasure trove for people writing their autobiographies, or for biographers entrusted with the information.

This is eerily like the processes in Shteyngart’s novel whereby people have data scores that are immediately readable by themselves and others, and the main character obsesses continuously over the state of his data, and judges the nature and potential for his relationship on the basis of the data of others.

Socrates was the first, I think, to say the unexamined life was not worth living, but I’m not entirely sure this was what he had in mind.  There is a weird distancing effect involved in this process by which we remove ourselves from ourselves and look at the numbers.

At the same time, I’m fascinated by the prospects, and I think its not all that different from the idea of “distanced reading” that is now becoming common through certain Digital humanities practices in literature, analyzing hundreds or thousands of novels instead of reading two or three closely in order to understand through statistical analysis the important trends in literary history at any particular point in time, as well as the way specific novels might fit in to that statistical history.

Nevertheless, a novel isn’t a person.  I remain iffy about reducing myself to a set of numbers I can work to improve, modify, analyze, and interpret.  The examined life leads typically not to personal policies, but to a sense of mystery, how much there is that we don’t know about ourselves, how much there is that can’t be reduced to what I can see, or what I can count.  If I could understand my life by numbers, would I?

For Your edification I include the book trailer for Shteygart’s novel below.

Remember reading?

An interesting piece from Slate referencing research on the difference between reading online and reading print versions of newspapers.  According to Jack Shafer:

“The researchers found that the print folks “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers”; that print readers “remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders”; and that print readers remembered “more main points of news stories.” When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.”

I’m sure the arguments will be trotted out that people read differently now, not better or worse. But shouldn’t that difference include getting the main point and remembering what you read after you read it?

Quotes of the Day–Gary Shteyngart–7/18/10

Shteyngart, who could pass for my friend Tim Dawson

“I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it.”

“American fiction is good. It would be nice if somebody read it.”

From Shteyngart’s recent interview with The New York Times Magazine.  Shteyngart’s new novel is on the way.  I’ve only read Absurdistan, but am looking forward to what’s next.

Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

Schlockey Books or Schlockey Television

Today at the New York Times Gail Collins reflects on a series of novels for teenage girls called The Twilight Saga:

I read the first two Twilights, searching for the key to their success. (This is where the part about being not all that deep comes in handy.) The attraction is clearly the vampire hero, who is a perfect gentleman, eternally faithful and — as the author points out repeatedly — quite a hunk. (“He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare … A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.”)

Before you make fun of this, I want you to seriously consider whether you’re interested in denigrating people who spend their leisure time actually reading books rather than watching “America’s Got Talent.”

A lot of times Collins makes me grimace.  I mean, just how long can one write for the New York Times and maintain the naive midwestern outsider pose.  On the other hand, this essay made me howl.  And she raises the interesting point that N+1 dismissed a couple of years back in its own analysis of our reading crises. According to N+1 we’ve been so obsessed with the reading crisis that we’re just thrilled people read anything at all, and they go on in good, and dare I say it snobby and Ivy-educated fashion, to dismiss the readerly pleasures of the hoi-polloi.

Still, I think Collins has a point.  The choice isn’t between the Twilight novels and Herman Melville, the choice is between Harry Potter and I Survived a Japanese Game show.  Given this choice, I’m glad my daughter chooses the Twilight novels–or their ilk.

(Side note:  A friend of mine who used to work regularly in Japan says Japanese regularly gather in parks to ridicule and laugh at American tourists.  Why do we even need a game show to accomodate them?)

Of course, I still hold out desperate hope that she’ll choose Melville or Shakespeare or Austen or Chopin or just anything that might get anthologized rather than forgotten.  But even if this hope is not delivered on, I still think there’s something better about having her read several ten thousands of words and exercise her imagination on the page than spend her time watching people consume cockroaches in the name of entertainment.