Tag Archives: computers

Speeding and Reading

As luck would have it I stumbled over two good essays in the same day that seemed to speak to my general concerns (paranoia) at the state of the world. Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle Review has an excellent piece on the speed with which American college students live their lives these days, a speed perhaps most emphatically symbolized by the Internet. Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia, and the author of the book Why Read, a book, among thousands of others, I haven’t had time to read yet.

Says Edmundson, beginning with a chance encounter with a student at the beginning of the school year:

We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing though Europe, then back to enjoy his family and home, reconnect with high-school friends, and work on recording a rock CD. What had I done? I had written five drafts of a chapter for a book on the last two years of Sigmund Freud’s life. I had traveled to Crozet, a few miles away, to get pizza. I’d sojourned overnight in Virginia Beach, the day after I woke up distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to begin my chapter. I’d driven to the beach, figured it out (I thought), and then I’d come home. My young friend looked at me with a mixture of awe and compassion. I felt a little like one of those aged men of the earth who populate Wordsworth’s poetry. One of them, the Old Cumberland Beggar, goes so slowly that you never actually see him move, but if you return to the spot where you first encountered him two hours past, lo, he has gone a little way down the road. The footprints are there to prove it.


One day I tried an experiment in a class I was teaching on English and American Romanticism. We had been studying Thoreau and talking about his reflections (sour) on the uses of technology for communication. (“We are in great haste,” he famously said, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”) I asked the group, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson’s Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau’s “Economy” — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my students aspire to do.

Edmundson’s essay is pretty wide-ranging, going on to link up with insightful discussion of the relevance of Byron, the natural of contemporary sex, and the laptop as an engine for infinitely expanding desire. Most interesting to me is that Edmundson rightly notes that higher education tends to respond to this situation by saying something like “There go my people, I must lead them” then rushing as fast as possible to make our classrooms and our curricula ever more multi-dimensional, multi-media, multi-tasking, multi-cultural, and multitudinous.

In part, the frantic and unrelenting—and perhaps unavoidable—drive for students as consumers leads us to “meet them where they are” rather than challenging and questioning the form of the culture we all necessarily inhabit.

Often times this argument is put in apolitical—and frankly just stupid—terms by casting it as old culture against new culture, or the culture of elders against the culture of youth. Edmundson points out that this generation of college students has had the internet since they were eight years old. My son has never known a time when we didn’t have an internet connection—even though we only managed to get off dialup a few months ago. How, one must ask, is an eight year old determining the contours of his or her culture. This is a culture that has been thrust upon them by mature adults who made the culture in which they must inevitably participate.

But to recognize that inevitability is not the same thing as having to endorse it or at least fail to recognize its limitations. The formidable speed and the wealth of information available at my internet connection is offered by denizens of the net as its greatest and most empowering aspect. It is also, perhaps, its most its most dehumanizing aspect.

Side note: who decided that more power—implied by the notion of empowerment—is always a good thing, always a humanizing thing. Ask Eliot Spitzer—awfully empowered. Not completely sure the quest for more empowerment results in better persons or better cultures.

Though, as I think about it, this isn’t really a sidenote. One traditional hack on traditional modes of reading (and traditional classrooms) are that they are disempowering. Too slow. The author/teacher is too much in control. Against this notion Edmundson suggests that the first task of teaching in such a world is not to speed up our classes, but to slow them down

For a student to be educated, she has to face brilliant antagonists. She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does. Does she come to college as a fundamentalist guardian of crude faith? Then two necessary books for her are Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Once she’s weathered the surface insults, she may find herself in an intellectual version of paradise, where she can defend her beliefs or change them, and where what’s on hand is not a chance conversation, as Socrates liked to say, but a dialogue about how to live. Is the student a scion of high-minded liberals who think that religion is the OxyContin — the redneck heroin — of Redneck Nation? Then on might come William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience or Schopenhauer’s essays on faith. It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.

Not long ago a young man came to my office, plopped down, and looked at me with tired urgency. “Give me 10 minutes on Freud,” he said. “Convince me that he really has something important to tell me.” Despite appearances, this was a good moment. It was a chance to try to persuade him to slow it down. Get one of Freud’s books — Civilization and Its Discontents is usually the best place to start — read it once and again, then let’s talk.


As to our students, all honor to them: They may have much to teach the five-drafter. By their hunger for more life they convey hope that the world is still in some measure a splendid place, worth seeing and appreciating. Into spontaneity they can liberate us. But life is more than spontaneity and whim. To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.

Yes, I think this is it precisely, and I appreciate Edmundson’s effort to find a balance between the culture of speed and the culture of reflection. But I also think he’s right that our students don’t need from us how to be taught to speed through a course of study; they do that well enough already.

Along these lines, I do think one of the greatest challenges facing English departments—if not the culture as a whole–is the deliberateness and singularly absorbed attention that traditional intensive reading requires.

There is a particular sense in which this kind of attention, this kind of slowing down, is “disempowering” in a particular and commonplace use of that term. I willingly subject myself to the book and surrender my consciousness to the authority of the text, my imagination to the primacy of another imagination. I am in some very real sense possessed and my consciousness of self temporarily dissolved into another world created not by the clicking finger of my desire—though my desire may not be suspended—but created by another will.

This is why romantics from Emerson to Byron to Barthes have hated reading (I say this even though Barthes is sometimes taken as a romantic of the reader. Or because of it. He can only imagine reading as a positive act if reading is reimagined as a form of writing, not a form of self-abnegation.)

My terms here verge on the spiritual, which leads to a second essay I read from Nancy Malone, but I’ve gone on too long already and will try to get to this later. Reading, or at least some kinds of reading, as a form of contemplative practice, one who’s desired goal the self-aggrandizing expansion of desire, but dissolution of the desiring self in any straightforward sense.

Books in a material world–Bookporn and more

I was talking to a couple of students yesterday, one of whom wants to be a librarian because she loves “being around books.” A little bit of a Scrooge, I guess, I told her she better get used to being around computers since that was the real future of libraries, taking her back a bit with my revelation that the library budget at our own college had just been required to move $50,000 from book purchasing to database collections. Small change for a lot of places, but for my smallish college $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, I’ve already felt the squeeze just a bit since English used to depend on the general fund of the library to order contemporary novels and poetry–which we ordered gleefully and at will. Probably partly on the erroneous assumption that availability would somehow translate into their being taken off the shelf. Well, that fund hasn’t disappeared, but we’ve been asked to order not quite so gleefully, and not quite so at will. A concrete manifestation of how a response to a perceived technological need–real or not–will gradually determine or close the future of the book as we’ve known it.

Still, my student was not dissuaded. She feels that books will always be with us because we love their physicality. There’s that body of the book theme again, and there’s something real about it that has to be thought through. Reading is not simply a mental process of decoding letters, not simply a process of getting information off a page or screen and in to our brains. It’s a physical activity to which we attach all kinds of cultural and personal meanings, a kind of spiritual reverence that the attach to the being of books that we cannot yet attach to computers.

We imagine computers too much as tools, and emphasizing their efficiency does too little to address the tactile, even the olfactory meanings that we attach to book culture. The other student who was with us was very intrigued by Amazon’s Kindle, but even she paused and said, “I became an English major when I looked out from the balcony and saw the stacks and stacks of books.” The physicality of books inspires a reverence, whereas the efficiency of computers inspires…what?…a sense of efficiency?

Indeed, I’m intrigued by the growing tendency of laptop users to try and personalize their laptops–recreating their essential impersonality through a kind of personal graffiti. There’s a great newstory on this phenomenon at c/net, along with Personalized laptop.  One of my favorites. 

We do this with books, it seems to me, but not in the same way. We don’t feel compelled to personalize the cover of a book, and our markings in a text are more to memorialize a reading experience than to carve a human personality into what is, after all, a machine. Books are a technology, but at the least we have learned to experience them as extensions of the body rather than as tools.

Along these lines, I’ve been running in to a lot of images of books again. Rachel Leow over at A Historian’s Craft celebrates the one year anniversary of her blog with BookPorn #27, a couple of fabulous images of the Library of the Musee Guimet. Says Rachel:Library Musee Guimet

“There’s a kind of hushed atmosphere when you walk in: the lights are dim and people shuffle about, struck silent with reverence, or perhaps the disconcerting, all-pervading pinkness of the walls and columns. The books lie, untouchable, behind their wire cages, and the smell of old paper lingers about well after you step, blinking, back out into the fluorescent glare of the exhibition outside.”

Nice writing, Rachel. And happy birthday. It seems to me that Rachel gets at this notion of the importance of the physicality of books inspiring a kind of reverence, something I attach even to my tattered paperback crowded onto basement shelves, but which I don’t really attach to my computer. Like nearly everyone else, I’m sure I spend a great deal more time on my computer reading anymore than I do in actually reading books. Like most white collar workers I’m chained here all day, and then blog all night. But feeling reverence for my computer feels a little bit like feeling reverence for my screwdriver. Not impossible, I guess. I’m sure many a carpenter has a deep feeling for his screwdriver. But I also guess that mostly such carpenters are considered weird by everyone else.

Books are tools, but it’s a mistake to think that what counts in reading them is the toolishness. If we only focus on the instrumental qualities associated with text delivery, there is no question that the e-book-o-philes among us are right to scoff at fears of digital libraries. Still, culture is more than instrumental, and always has been.

Along these lines, there’s a humorous and very interesting Giuseppe Acrimboldo Librarianskewering of those of us who are book fetishists over at if:book. Chris Mead has written a song about the history of books along with a lot of great images. My favorite is this from Giuseppe Acrimboldo, “The Librarian.” I love it. The human is text, no a book, a library. What I’ve always thought anyway. I am my books. I don’t yet say, I am my computer. Will I ever.

Chris takes the opportunity to skewer the-sky-is-falling attitude that some of us bring to the changes that are going on

“words: written in silence, muttered in monasteries
have been sung, shouted, acted – now by digital industries

broadcast and mixed for our burgeoning multiculture,

but circled by many a gloom-laden vulture

crying “R.I.P. books: doomed to extinction
by some blinking e-inky, i-evil invention”.
The word spreads and
changes; that’s my belief.
What next for the book?
The future lies overleaf.

Very nice. Dr. Seussian. Ok, only almost. Still, Chris’s poem/song emphasizes an assumption that I think is flatly wrong. That the technology of reading is essentially inconsequential for the act of reading itself. This is clear explicitly in the opening part of his poem.

“Books are what a society carries its words in
and words have been written on stone, silk, slate, parchment,
wax, clay, screen and skin,”

This is superficially true, but the assumption seems to be that reading is only about decoding letters, and books–or parchments or scrolls or screens–are merely delivery systems that are more or less equal except in the efficiency with which they can deliver text to readers. This is flatly false, as any historian of books and reading could point out in half a breath. In some sense, when we went from reading scrolls to reading codexes and then books, the changing technology changed the meaning of the act of reading, not just the techniques of the act of reading. It is this changing meaning that is crucial to try and understand. Techniques of text delivery can merely be learned through users manuals. Meanings and their attendant ways of being human are less easily learned and unlearned. We ought to pay attention to what those changes might be.

Final note: I’m sure everyone’s familiar with this video, but it still makes me smile. It’s a reminder that all of the cultural associations we have with books had to be learned. There’s nothing natural about our sentimental attachments to books. As kids, we’re all in the position of the monk at a loss here, not knowing which way a book sets on the table, which way to turn the pages. Culture is learned. That doesn’t mean the demise of books should be sniffed at. But culture is learned.