Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

questioning cultural artifacts

Some years ago I came across a document called “Seventy-Six Reasonable Questions to Ask about Any Technology.” If you follow that link you’ll see the questions attributed to the late Jacques Ellul, but I believe they were actually produced by members of the Jacques Ellul Society. In any event, they’re pretty interesting questions.

I’ve been thinking about them lately in relation to my friend Andy Crouch’s remarkable new book Culture Making. Now, this is a book written primarily for Christians who want and need to do a better job of “making something of the world” — Andy’s core definition of what culture is, adapted from Ken Myers — but the task of culture making is everyone’s task, and there’s a world of wisdom and provocation in Andy’s book. I can't recommend it too highly.

Anyway, I’m reminded of those seventy-six Ellulian questions when I read Andy’s thoughts on how we might make sense of, and properly evaluate, any cultural artifacts, not just the ones we tend to call “technological.” (Of course, in a deep sense all cultural artifacts are the products of technology.) He suggests that we ask five questions of those artifacts, and I’m going to end this blogging year by recommending those questions to you. It would be a good discipline in the coming year to ask them often (and also to read Andy’s book).

(1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is? What are the key features of the world that this cultural artifact tries to deal with, respond to, make sense of?

(2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be? What vision of the future animated its creators? What new sense does it seek to add to a world that often seems chaotic and senseless?

(3) What does this cultural artifact make possible? What can people do or imagine, thanks to this artifact, that they could not before? Conversely,

(4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)? What activities and experiences that were previously part of the human experience become all but impossible in the wake of this new thing?

(5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact? What is cultivated and created that could not have been before?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Frum and literature

David Frum makes a familiar argument in several parts:

1) “Literature is a declining presence in our modern society.”

2) “What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this: Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity.”

3) “Why not treat comic books as literature? After all, that's how we treat Alice Walker!”

Look, I’m a literature professor. It is my job, and also my joy, to spend many of my days celebrating and investigating some of the most wonderful books ever written. I love to argue, as passionately as I can, that some books really are greater — deeper, wiser, more beautiful, more continually rewarding of the reader’s attention — than others. And it’s wonderful that Frum takes the time to give Kafka’s The Trial the praise that eerie masterpiece deserves.

But I can't give full assent to the three claims listed above.

1) What Frum shows — what almost all people who make this kind of argument show — is that literature is a minority taste: Look at how many more hits there are for the Sopranos than for Kafka! But literature has always been a minority taste. If you want to argue that that minority is shrinking, you going to have to acquire some comparative data. You’ll need to define literature, and you need to gather as much information as you can about literacy rates, book sales relative to population, library use, and so on. You’ll need to figure out what time frame you’re talking about: the past thirty years? Seventy-five? Two hundred? You’ll need to get as much historical context as possible, and context from other societies, by reading historians of reading like Robert Darnton and Jonathan Rose. Once you’ve done all that work, you will be entitled to draw some tentative conclusions about whether the reading of literature is declining or not, and, if there is a decline, whether it’s from a well-established norm or from a unique high point.

2) Yes, a lot of crap gets taught because of “political correctness.” But a great deal of major literature has been discovered as a result of paying attention to cultures beyond the West. Harold Pinter never wrote a play worthy to be compared with Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I would give up the complete works of John Updike and Philip Roth for Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and a handful of the gently brilliant comic novels of R. K. Narayan. And yes, I’m serious.

3) I don't know what Frum means by “comic books,” but there are graphic novels that are significant works of art, that need to be reckoned with. Books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, and David B.’s Epileptic defy condescension — and indeed, I might give up a good chunk of Updike and Roth for them too.

So three cheers for The Trial, and three cheers for David Frum’s celebration of The Trial. But I don't really know whether literature is declining or not; and I believe that at least some of the changes in literary culture in recent decades have been for the better.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

(Cross-posted at The American Scene.)

the seminar on reading

When the new semester begins at Wheaton College, where I teach, I’ll lead a seminar for senior English majors on the experience of reading. I’m interested in getting them to explore with me their own histories as readers: how their early reading experiences shaped them, what books were their favorites in childhood, how their reading habits changed as they matured, what made them decide to major in English, how being an English major has changed their practices of reading (for better or worse!), and so on. I've taught similar seminars before, and they tend to be pretty enlightening for all concerned.

We’ll start by looking at two brief and very different accounts of what it means to be a reader, one by Virginia Woolf and one by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Then we’ll explore some aspects of the history of reading. Our first book will be Orality and Literacy, by the late, great Father Walter Ong; then we’ll move to Ivan Illich’s remarkable investigation into medieval reading practices, In the Vineyard of the Text; and then we’ll read Sven Birkerts’s rage against the dying of the novelistic light, The Gutenberg Elegies, some excerpts of which may be found here. Obviously these books will not give us a systematic history of reading, but they will provide a general orientation to that history, and will give us terms and concepts within which we can think better about our own lives as readers.

Then we’ll turn to two life stories, the autobiographical accounts of two people whose lives were changed by reading: Augustine’s Confessions and Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory.

To try to get a handle on certain issues related to text and image, and how we cognitively process both text and image, we’ll also read Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic memoir Persepolis.

And to all this will be added a series of essays and articles, almost all of which may be found linked to here.

Obviously, the theme of this seminar is very close to the core concerns of this blog, so you may expect occasional reports on the issues that arise in our classroom conversations. (But students, don't worry, none of you will be exposed to the harsh glare of the public eye.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

too much of a good thing?

I guess even reading is a bad habit if our outgoing President is the one doing it.

natural signs

In an earlier post I linked to this excerpt from Albert Borgmann’s extraordinary book Holding On To Reality, and I want to invoke Borgmann again now. One of the key concerns of that book is to separate and classify the kinds of . . . well, reading is what I would say — the kinds of reading we do. But Borgmann would probably say that he wants to understand the various kinds of signs we confront and the various ways we interpret them. Borgmann is especially concerned with our diminishing ability to read what he calls natural signs:

Information about reality exhibits its pristine form in a natural setting. An expanse of smooth gravel is a sign that you are close to a river. Cottonwoods tell you where the river bank is. An assembly of twigs in a tree points to osprey. The presence of osprey shows that there are trout in the river. In the original economy of signs, one thing refers to another in a settled order of reference and presence. A gravel bar seen from a distance refers you to the river. It is a sign. When you have reached and begun to walk on the smooth and colored stones, the gravel has become present in its own right. It is a thing. And so with the trees, the nest, the raptor, and the fish.

Borgmann teaches at the University of Montana and it’s clear from his books that he spends a lot of time outdoors; in one sense you could say that his major works are attempts to forge a meaningful connection between the experience of doing philosophy and the experience of walking through the Montana landscapes.

I have been thinking a lot about this emphasis in Borgmann’s work lately, and it affected the way I read this story about changes in the new version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

It is difficult to read the list of words excluded from the new Oxford Junior Dictionary without a sharp sense of regret. Here are some of the words that have been culled: catkin, brook, minnow, acorn, buttercup, heron, almond, marzipan, ash, beetroot, bray, bridle, porpoise, gooseberry, raven, carnation, blackberry, tulip, catkin, porridge and conker.

But you are likely to be overwhelmed by a greater sadness when you see the words that have elbowed them out. They include celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro, square number, block graph, attachment, database and analogue.

Unlike Henry Porter, I am not “overwhelmed by sadness” when I note the new words that are included; but I am dismayed to see the ones cast off, because those castoffs are largely words that describe the natural world — words that enable an understanding of “natural signs,” words that embody “information about reality.” As Porter rightly says, “what we are witnessing is a gradual triumph of abstract words over objects that can be seen and experienced.”

Porter has other complaints about the changes as well — the new dictionary’s “war on Anglo-Saxon simplicity,” its exclusion of religious and historical references — but this is the one that strikes me, at the moment, as especially significant. As our world becomes more complex, our children’s dictionaries (and adult ones too, for that matter) may just have to get bigger. But if hard choices have to be made, I’d rather start them off learning about brooks, acorns, and ravens; there will be plenty of time for databases and celebrities later.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

book buying

David Streitfeld has a curious essay in the NYT about bad times for the publishing industry — publishers not buying new books, bookstores closing — and his preferred explanation for the troubles:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

Seriously? Are there that many people buying used books online? I suppose it’s possible, but my own experience wouldn't suggest that that market is huge. But then, a lot of used book sales are done via Amazon, and no one really knows how well Amazon is doing. Maybe Streitfeld is right and used-books-via-Amazon-and-eBay constitute a major threat to the whole publishing industry. But I have my doubts.

Something else in the essay that I find intriguing: Streitfeld’s claim that the ready availability of used books makes book-buying a morally-charged enterprise:

One consequence has been to change the calculations involved in buying a book. Given the price, do I really want to read this? Now it’s become both an economic and a moral issue? How much do I want to pay, and where do I want that money to go? To my local community via a bookstore? To the publisher? To the author?

In theory, I want to support all of these fine folks. In practice, I decide to save a buck.

I’m sensing a whole brave new world of examples for writers of ethics texts.

Friday, December 26, 2008

fast-twitch and slow-twitch

Okay, so in an earlier post I argued that we live in an Age of Reading, an age in which more people than ever before are reading various kinds of signs (many of them textual) all the time. I also acknowledged that these forms of reading are quite various — but they also do have certain traits in common, primarily the physical act of scanning, of casting one’s eyes across a field which contains identifiable signs, identifiable units of meaning, identifiable objects of interpretation. A student reading a novel and a quarterback reading a defense and a radiologist reading an x-ray are all performing similar actions, in this one sense at least; but we also know — and commenters on that post immediately noted — that in other respects those are very different actions that call for very different skills.

People who value acts like the reading of novels worry whether other forms of reading — especially quicker ones, like the quarterback scanning the defense, or a video-game player scanning the dangers confronting his or her character — are displacing the kinds of reading that require longer, slower kinds of attention. And this is a legitimate worry. But I wonder whether the physiological commonalities I have pointed to could, if we are thoughtful and imaginative, provide a way to get people who are already skilled at fast-twitch reading to develop their skills at slow-twitch reading. It might be that these activities are not as alien to each other, as opposed to each other, as we commonly think. That’s something I’m trying to work out in my own mind, anyway.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

a Christmas Eve thought

From G. K. Chesterton:

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.

And a blessed Christmas to all!

scrolls and codexes

Several commentators — and by the way, I am thrilled by the quality of comments this blog has received in its short life — several commentators have asked how the issues I’ve raised so far affect one kind of reading in particular: reading of the Bible. Ten years ago — Lord have mercy, has it really been ten years? — I wrote an essay about Alberto Manguel’s delightful book A History of Reading that raised some of these issues. The essay is available online only for those who subscribe to the Christianity Today Library, so I’ll just provide some of the relevant excerpts here, and then come back to the topic at a later point.

How different the Scriptures must have been for Christians when they were really ta biblia (plural: “the little books”), that is, a set of scrolls kept in a pigeonholed cabinet, rather than being bound into a sewn codex as the Bible (singular). Indeed, the use of scrolls militated so strongly against the emerging commitment of the early church to the unity of all Scripture that scrolls were quickly abandoned: scholars have found that, in the second, third, and fourth centuries a.d., the great majority of pagan texts were recorded in scrolls, while the Bible was almost always preserved in codex form. (Manguel, by the way, mistakenly thinks the preference for codexes universal in the late classical period.)

This shift from scroll to codex is perhaps the greatest single change in the history of the read object. The mass production that the printing press made possible may have had an equally significant overall importance, but the experience of reading a hand-copied book is not so dramatically different from the experience of reading a machine-made one.

Or is it? Even some apparently trivial details of design may be more significant than we think. Gabriel Josipovici, in The Book of God, suggests that “a major reason why the New English Bible was greeted with such a chorus of disapproval [when it appeared in complete form in 1970] was surely that in most editions it was designed to look just like any other book.” In the years since then we have grown more accustomed to Bibles in a variety of shapes and with a wide range of textual designs, but then — less than 30 years ago — the absence of leather binding, India paper, numbered verses, descriptive page headers, and so on must have been disconcerting. Most criticism deplored the translation’s pedestrian style, but Josipovici’s shrewd comment makes one wonder whether readers’ perceptions of that style were not shaped by its editors’ “policy of making the Bible look as much like a classical novel as possible” — just as perceptions of the Jerusalem Bible may have been shaped by its editors’ “policy of making the Bible look as much like a newspaper as possible.”

Moreover, all of us purchase and use Bibles with an eye toward appearance: the size, shape, and design of our Bibles transmit messages to us and to those who see us. In college and graduate school I favored a simple, hardbound version of the RSV, eschewing leather binding as a decorative frivolity. The brightly colored paperbacks preferred by some of my peers I also rejected, though for the opposite reason: they didn’t seem prepared for the long haul, they lacked sufficient gravitas. In the ensuing years I have come to favor leatherbound but extremely small Bibles, perhaps in reaction against all those enormous annotated ones that make me think of crude spiritual weaponry — as though the Bible were the cudgel rather than the sword of the Spirit.

Josipovici is right — these matters are important — but I find myself returning again and again to the scroll-codex distinction, in part because we may now suspect that the victory of the codex was not permanent. An offhand comment by Manguel opens this issue: “The unwieldy scroll possessed a limited surface — a disadvantage we are keenly aware of today, having returned to this ancient book-form on our computer screens, which reveal only a portion of text at a time as we ‘scroll’ upwards or downwards.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the age of reading

In January of 2008 Steve Jobs, the head of Apple Computer, was interviewed by reporters from the New York Times, and while Jobs was primarily interested in celebrating Apple’s newest products, he was willing to announce his views on other matters as well. For instance, on the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

There’s a lot to pick apart in Jobs’s statement. One could point out that if sixty percent of Americans read more than one book per year — many of them reading dozens — that’s an enormous potential market for the Kindle and for the book business in general. Or one could point out that America is not the only country in the world. Or one could point out that a Harris poll conducted two months after Jobs made that comment shows slightly better news: that only 31% of Americans polled read three or fewer books per year, while 37% read more than ten.

But just as a thought experiment, let’s grant Jobs’s point — and extend it. What if it were the case that only five percent of Americans read more than a book a year? Would it then be true that “people don’t read anymore”? I contend that there have never been a people who read more than Americans in our time. In additions to magazines and newspapers, in print or online, they read blogs. They read text messages on their cellphones. They read advertisements on billboards, storefronts, and the sides of buses. They even read while they’re watching TV: think about the crawlers on cable news shows, or the statistics that can virtually surround the images of baseball or football games. (Anyone who looks at old ball games on ESPN Classic will be struck by how empty the screen is of anything but the image itself.)

And what if we wish to become somewhat less literal in our definition of reading? Football quarterbacks — even the old-timers we see on ESPN Classic — read defenses. Radiologists read x-rays. Experts in “non-verbal communication” read facial expressions and body language and tell us that we do too — and can read them even better if we buy the experts’ books. Film critics read the narrative arcs of movies; art historians read the iconography of old paintings; businessmen read pie charts; mathematicians read the dots plotted via Cartesian coordinates.

We live in the Age of Reading. And yes, I know, there’s reading and then there’s reading. But still, that there is a kind of reading that we all do is a fact worth reckoning with. In future posts I’ll be reckoning with it.

UPDATE: Looks like CNN has eliminated the crawl, or one of them, anyway.

Monday, December 22, 2008

empty books

Sam Kean on a visit to a shop in Venice:

I approached the owner and asked about the shelves of leather-bound books. Though all of them (the books) were blank, they looked like the sort of gilt-edged, feathery-papered volumes that populate the wet dreams of every bibliophile. “Do you make all these yourself?” I asked.

He answered that yes, yes, he did, of course. Over his glasses, his eyes scanned around at the volumes. Impulsively, I asked him if he also made chapbooks for people, actually set type and printed books. He said he never does that, he doesn’t have time. “I like to sleep at night,” he explained in mock seriousness.

But my question betrayed something, and he moved on to other customers. Looking back, I should have felt like a boob. Here I was in a stationery story, and I’d asked about words, potential stories. I’d been intoxicated at the hundreds of gorgeous volumes on the shelves and wanted to fill the unfulfilled books, but there wasn’t a single letter in any of them: A very lonely library. What to me seemed just prep work, the sewing and binding, was for La Carta the end.

2008: the year the e-book caught on?

Gregory Cowles:

Whatever else it’s remembered for in the publishing industry, 2008 may be remembered as the year that e-books finally caught on. Kindles are a regular sight on my train these days, and seem likely to become as ubiquitous as iPods: due to unexpected demand (or shrewd marketing?) Amazon sold out well before the holidays and established a Kindle waiting list, elevating the device to the vaunted commercial realm of Birkin bags and Tickle-Me-Elmos. Meanwhile, executives at one publishing house recently told me they now read all of their manuscript submissions on Sony Readers, not paper, and they may eliminate bound galleys in favor of electronic review copies.
"Ubiquitous as iPods"? I don't think that's likely. But I am really surprised to discover that editors are reading manuscripts paperlessly. It makes sense, of course, but still. . . .

form and content

Jeremy C writes below, “Doesn’t having a uniform page layout for all the books on the device focus your attention, not on the layout/design, but on the content?” Great question. I think the answer depends on how we make the distinction between form or presentation and content. It has become fashionable in some circles to deny the distinction, to insist that form and content are one — but that strikes me as an over-reaction to simplistic attempts to make an absolute distinction between the two.

The fact of the matter is that reading the brilliant Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace on a Kindle and reading it in the lovely Knopf hardcover edition are distinctively different experiences — and yet if one person reads the Kindle version and one reads the Knopf hardcover we are fully justified in saying that both of them have read the same book. (At least insofar as we are willing to say that two different people ever read “the same book.”) We can tell this by applying a version of the Turing test or Chinese room experiment: in any imaginable conversation with readers of War and Peace, it would be impossible to determine which of then had read a printed book and which had read via some electronic medium.

So there is a sense in which the content of the book is distinct from its form. And yet there is also a sense — a subtler, harder to specify sense — in which reading experiences vary according to medium, form, presentation. I think we’re really at the early stages of trying to understand this kind of thing.

Edward Tufte’s work is really helpful in these matters; see some of my thoughts about Tufte and related issues here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

revenue

Writing below about the now-defunct web services Stikkit and I Want Sandy, I remarked that, as far as I could tell, Rael Dornfest and the other makers of those services never even tried to come up with a revenue model. Certainly they never asked their users to contribute to the maintenance of the service. Instead, Stikkit and Sandy were offered for free until (I suppose) that became unsustainable, and then they were simply shut down.

James Surowiecki, writing recently in The New Yorker, points out that the newspaper industry is in a curious situation, because industries usually fail when people lose interest in their product. But, Surowiecki points out, “people don’t use the [New York] Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.”

“For a while now,” he continues, “readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.” This is no doubt true, and not just for traditional journalism.

Consider this: Wikipedia — or, more accurately, the Wikimedia Foundation — is trying to raise a bunch of money to keep the service going. And they probably will succeed: even if they don't raise all the money they want, Wikipedia is unlikely to be shut down as Stikkit and Sandy were. But the point is, it could happen. In a very short period of time, Wikipedia has become a fixture in people’s lives, something we all expect to be there whenever we want, something we are confident we can count on — just the way people for many decades thought of General Motors. But nothing is forever, and in tough economic times, we may discover just how fragile some of the economies of the internet really are.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

on typography

To my mind, the single biggest flaw of the Kindle may be summed up in a single word: typography. The Kindle has one typeface, which means that very page of every book looks precisely the same. (See nadezhda's correction, and helpful further information, in the comments below.) For me, the design of a book resides principally in its typography, in the way the text is set on the page. In my own history as a writer, I feel that I have been fortunate in the covers of my books — with the glaring exception of The Narnian, whose cover I despise but over which I had no say — but not so fortunate in what really matters to me, the typographic design. Only my most recent book, Original Sin: a Cultural History, really looks good on the page to me.

In general it’s probably best that authors don't have much say in such matters. Some years ago Douglas Hofstadter published a book, Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, which, he proudly asserted, he designed himself all the way down to the layout of each page. It’s an absolute nightmare. I’ve never seen a book by a major publisher whose typography was so appallingly inept. And maybe I wouldn't do any better — but oh, how I would love to work with a skilled designer to help any books I write from now on look as good as possible.

Anyway, I very much look forward to the day when books on the Kindle are actually designed, when each of them has a distinct and carefully-wrought appearance. Then each book will feel more like a book, more like a thing unto itself, not just digits running across a screen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tim O’Reilly loves Twitter

Here. Once I realized that the only thing I liked about Facebook was the status updates, and that Twitter is simply status updates without all the other garbage, I deleted my Facebook account and started tweeting. I suppose I could develop an elaborate defense of Twitter against its many detractors, but that's too much trouble — I no longer like writing anything that takes me more than 140 characters.

It's curious to me that people complain that Twitter encourages mindless nattering and that it enforces brevity. This is like saying "The food here is terrible — and such small portions." If you're going to natter mindlessly, isn't it best that you're concise about it?
Anyway, I use Twitter because I think it's fun. I really don't have any more of a defense than that.

a common thread

Just in case it’s not obvious, there is at least one common thread in these recent posts about how I read and how I write: Distraction is the enemy. Yeah, I know, you think you’re a master of multitasking, but you’re not. Seriously, you are not. Okay, I mean it, Give it up.

For most of us, focus and concentration are the pearls of great price, and if we want to get them, we have to be prepared to give up options. Options, possibilities, choices are the obvious enemies of focus. This is why I do most of my writing in my office, because when I’m at home I always have the option of seeing what’s on TV to watch or in the pantry to snack on. I have options at the office too — primarily seeing if there are any friends around to talk to — but those typically don't afflict me quite as much as the tube and food do, not because I don't like my friends, but because I know that a planned brief visit can easily turn into an hour-long schmooze session. TV and pantry are usually briefer stops.

Of course the internet provides options almost wherever I am. Years ago, I would sometimes take the Metra train into Chicago and work all day at a coffee shop in the station — the buzz of commuters somehow helped me concentrate, like a kind of animate white noise — but the advent of public wireless access has made that a less Spartan, and therefore less attractive, alternative than it used to be.

And you know, I need the internet. I need to look stuff up. I need to find PDFs that I’ve saved so that I can copy quotes and paste them into essays I’m writing; I need to check dates or confirm authorship. So what I have to do is find that right balance: the balance that allows me access to what I need while offering minimal additional distractions. One of the ways I get that is by reducing the number of options available to me in my writing environment. I don't need to be wondering what this essay would look like in another font, or with different spacing. (For that matter, I don't need to be trying to decide which fountain pen to use with my Moleskine notebook — or should I be using an Alwych? But that’s a story for another post.) I need to achieve the highest level of attention possible to writing the words I need to write.

For some people that means using a full-screen editor like WriteRoom, and while I think WriteRoom is cool, I don't like going in and out of full-screen mode all the time, which is what I have to do as I work with my research. If I were a fiction writer Writeroom might be more attractive to me. But for me BBEdit seems to hit the sweet spot. You mileage may vary, of course — but I can't bring myself to believe that Microsoft Word is the sweet spot for any writer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

three theses for disputation

1) The future of reference works will be online, because research requires the aggregation and association of divergent pieces of information. For dictionaries and encyclopedias of all sorts, there is — and should be — no going back from the hyperlink. It is almost impossible to imagine that there will be another printed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for example. (For a discussion of that point, see this post — scroll down to “Day 2” and follow the links.)

2) As long as e-readers continue to promote linearity of attention — as I argue the Kindle does — they will increasingly be seen as the natural home of narrative-dominated books, whether works of fiction or history or current events or true crime or whatever. When a book is written in such a way as to encourage you to keep turning the pages, keep moving forward in the story, then the e-reader will seem an appropriate medium for that book.

3) This means that the traditional printed book will be the best home for works that need to be lingered over, meditated, considered with care. Literary fiction, then — I wouldn't want to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Home on an e-reader — and poetry, and any book that depends on fine illustration. Most works of humanistic learning, of serious scholarship. As a professor of English, books such as these constitute much of my reading life, so I don't see the Kindle, as much as I like it, becoming anything more than an ancillary device for me. But if e-readers do come to be more and more prominent, as I expect they will, then what will become of these kinds of work that (so I claim) are best experienced the old-fashioned way? Will readers learn to be more contemplative while reading such books on e-readers, despite the promptings of the technology to move them forward? Will writers gradually learn to adapt their own styles to this more propulsive medium? Or will works that fit the technology of the printed book simply decline in prevalence and importance?

end of an era

This is perhaps slightly off-topic for this blog, but — caveat lector — I have a certain susceptibility to the Cult of Mac, so I might do this kind of thing from time to time. John Gruber, the most consistently sharp commentator on the Apple scene, just posted his thoughts on Apple’s recent announcement that in January they will make their final appearance at the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco, and that during this last appearance the keynote address will be given not by Steve Jobs but by an Apple VP, Phill Schiller. Gruber:

Repetition blinds us to just how odd certain rituals of tradition are. Like how it seems perfectly normal that every December we chop down millions of small trees, decorate them with electric lights and glass balls, and display them prominently in our homes.

Likewise, it has somehow come to feel normal that on a Tuesday morning in early January each year, thousands of people from around the country come to San Francisco to stand in line for hours — hundreds of them waiting all night long in a queue stretching around the block — to sit in a large auditorium and watch the CEO of an electronics company announce new products. That is not normal; it is extraordinary.

It is extraordinary. And one has to wonder how long this kind of excitement will last. My sense is that as Apple grows in its reach and influence, largely thanks to the iPhone, the Cult will become less cultish and will eventually fade away altogether. All cults thrive on marginalization: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. . . .”

(Tech note for the geeky: I owe Gruber a great debt, because Markdown, the — what to call it? — formatting syntax and text-conversion tool he and Aaron Swartz wrote, and the Markdown plug-in he wrote for BBEdit, are what make it possible for me to do all my writing in one text editor. Thanks, John!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

what to write with

Before the Kindle came along, I wasn’t looking for it — I wasn’t in search of a new set of tools for reading. I was (and still am!) happy with books and with the tactics I have developed over the years for reading, learning, marking, and inwardly digesting them. (Allusion alert!) I bought the Kindle on a whim and, as I have said, like it more than I thought I would, at least for some uses.

But tools for writing I have been thinking about for a long, long time. Like many other people, I think Microsoft Word (for the Mac, anyway) reached its highest level at version 5.1, released in 1991, and started sliding precipitously downhill thereafter. Long ago I came to agree with Louis Menand: “It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.” But unlike Menand, I not only spoke such truth, I acted on it. About four years ago I deleted Word, and indeed all Microsoft applications, from my computer. And I have been a happier man ever since.

When I tell people that I don't even have Word on my computer, they look at me as though I has just told them that I don't have electricity in my house. “Then what do you use?” To most of the folks I talk to, Word simply is writing, or at least writing on the computer — especially if they’re not old enough to remember the days when WordPerfect was a legitimate rival to Word.

So what do I use? Well, to format documents I use Pages, but I never write in it. In fact, I think word processing programs in general, while fine for processing words — that is, preparing them to be seen by others — are inimical to writing itself. I write everything — blog posts like this, articles, class notes, and whole books — in a programmer’s text editor called BBEdit. I started moving in this direction nine years ago, when I read Neal Stephenson’s little book In the Beginning Was the Command Line — which you can download for free here — but it took me a while to wean myself completely from dependence on Word. But eventually I achieved my freedom.

Most of the posts in the early days of this blog are laying out topics for further discussion — I haven’t said my last word about the Kindle, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of PEG’s bottom-line comment, posted just below; and I will have much, much more to say about the varieties of screen experience — and this is another post like that. Later on I’ll describe the benefits of working in a text-only environment. So please stay tuned.

the definitive word on the subject of the Kindle

From PEG, in the comments below: "I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think the contemporary world is so furiously enamored with the written word that we can regard an innovative way to access it as a suspicious luxury rather than an urgent necessity."

Monday, December 15, 2008

screens and screens

Christine Rosen says, with trepidation, that “we are becoming people of the screen.” Kevin Kelly says, with eager excitement, that . . . “we are becoming people of the screen.”

The chief problem I have with this phrase, whether used by Rosen or Kelly, is the casual and confident use of the phrase “the screen.” This is what the Marxist theorists used to call “false reification.” There is no such thing as “the screen”; there are screens, plural, and they are not all the same. In the course of a day I might be faced with many different screens — computer, television, movie theater, iPhone, digital camera, Wii, Kindle, ATM — and each of them calls for something different from me: different movements of my eyes, different means of physical interaction, different forms of cognition.

Each of them resembles certain other visual experiences. One might call forth the same skills I need when viewing a painting, or a photograph. Or a human face, perhaps. Another may require of me similar forms of attention to those I would use in reading a map, or scanning a mountain landscape in search of a navigable path (and also in search of potential dangers).

If we hope to achieve intelligent evaluations of our various screen experiences, we need to be attentive to these differences; we need a far more nuanced vocabulary than we commonly employ. My recommendation is that we start by reading Albert Borgmann — say, this introduction to his 1999 book Holding On to Reality: the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, a book few of us have caught up with yet.

responding to responses

A few responses to my previous Kindle posts that I’d like to address:

Adam S: “Clearly there are weaknesses to the medium. The biggest one for me is that I used to remember how to find passages, especially bible passages, by feel. I would remember about where it was in the book and about where it was on the page. But electronically, I can just do a search.”

Yeah, I find this a little disorienting. Like many people, I tend to remember where a particular passage is on the page, and also whether it’s on a left or right page; so when I’m looking for a passage I thumb through the book looking only in the visual area I associate with that passage. But sometimes I misremember, and even if I don't the process can take a long time. so it’s more efficient just to search an electronic text — but why then, when I’m reading an e-text, do I miss my old forms of textual navigation?

Julana: “The visual and tactile form of the book is part of my life’s geography. I don’t want to move, at this age.” And David Milton: “I can’t smell a Kindle, nor can I feel its pulpy pages as I can with books.” See also Philo in the comments to the second post.

Yes, and every book has a somewhat different “tactile form.” There’s no question that I have very strong memories that link stories and poems with very particular embodied forms — with certain covers, typefaces, and so on. For instance, I have read several of Anthony Trollope’s novels in old blue Oxford World’s Classics hardcovers, bought in bookstores in Hay-on-Wye, and I associate Trollope’s stories with that distinctive form — so much so that Trollope novels I have read in other editions (Penguin Classics, say) are not as vivid in my memory. Weird. Stephenson’s Anathem is a well-designed and attractive book, and while I think reading it on the Kindle kept me moving through it quickly, I wonder if it won't fade in my memory without the physical cues of typeface and design and smell. In that sense my verdict on the Kindle will have to be postponed until later.

On the other hand, some of the most powerful reading experiences of my life occurred when I was reading volumes that lacked beauty or even distinctive form. And that’s a point I’ll come back to in another post.

PEG: “we need the Kindle to be an open platform: e-paper devices of all sizes and kinds that allow you to download books from all kinds of sources. A sort of Android for literature. Then the paper book will quickly go the way of the horse.”

I wonder about that. I think there will always be certain kinds of reading, certain ways of reading, that will be better suited to the physical book. Poetry, for instance, which depends for much of its success on the way it looks on the page and the white space that surrounds it. Again, I will get back to this point in later posts — these are issues dear to my heart that will recur here. And I might also point to James Gleick’s recommendation that publishers would do well to focus on the making of beautiful books. I should add, though, that nadezhda makes a great point about the kinds of reading that is exceptionally well-suited to the Kindle format.

Michael Straight: “The Kindle, in its current form, won’t last more than a few years. Just as the iPod went from a music player, to a video player, to a phone that does both those things as well as browsing the web, handheld reading devices will expand in functionality until they are also web browsers.”

Probably right, but when this happens the Kindle (or its successors) will be a much less attractive option for me. I like the current Kindle’s dedication to the reading experience. PEG says, “If you don’t want to search Wikipedia while reading a book, don’t,” but he’s probably stronger-willed than I am. Oscar Wilde spoke for me when he said “I can resist anything except temptation.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

more kindling

The first thing I should say about Christine Rosen’s critique of the Kindle, which I mentioned in my earlier post on this subject, is that it is but a part of a large and ambitious essay that makes many important points about the present and future of reading that I completely endorse. I hope to have the opportunity to discuss some of those points later on. But on to KIndleblogging:

Rosen writes, “Much has been written about the Kindle’s various features: wireless service that allows for rapid delivery of e-texts; the ability to search the Web; a service called ‘NowNow’ that performs real-time searches (using human beings!) to answer questions; a dedicated ‘Search Wikipedia’ function. These features are remarkable — and remarkably distracting.” Well, I don't think “much” has been written about any of these features except the first one Rosen lists, but more important: those last three features would indeed be distracting if they were easy to get to, but they aren't, and they aren't designed to be. For now, at any rate, the Kindle’s access to the Web is tucked several clicks away from any book you might be reading. Rosen says she kept getting distracted by those options and couldn't focus on her book, but I wonder how she managed that. For me, it’s just too much trouble to get into any of that stuff — it’s much easier to keep reading.

And in general that’s how the Kindle works for me: it keeps me reading. Think how easy it is — and how tempting — when you’re reading a novel to look ahead to the end. Maybe you just want to see how many pages there are in the book, to know how much you have left to read — but of course you just might sneak a peek at the last paragraph. You can do this on the Kindle, but it’s not easy at all. Similarly, when reading many different kinds of book you might want to take a look at the table of contents, to check how how many chapters there are, whether they have titles, what the titles might mean, and so on — and again, you can do that on the Kindle, but only by moving your hands in a different and less natural way that you employ to turn the pages as you follow an argument or narrative.

In short, once you start reading a book on the Kindle the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else. The Kindle, unlike many other artifacts of the digital age, promotes linearity — it creates a forward momentum that you can reverse if you wish, but not without some effort. The first book I read on my Kindle was Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem, a behemoth of a book, and that experience was delightful because there was no awkward manual management of a large heavy book, and limited temptation to repeatedly investigate the book’s apparatus — Anathem has a wonderful glossary to help readers deal with Stephenson’s many neologisms, but my tendency when offered something like that is to wander around in it and forget to get back to the story. Reading Anathem on the Kindle, I knew that I could get to the Glossary if I needed to, but it didn’t constantly tempt me. Instead, I became utterly absorbed in the story itself.

I have a hardcover copy of Anathem too, and looking through it over the past few months I have become quite aware of what I missed by reading the book on my Kindle. And I’ll say something about that in my next post on this subject.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

typewriting

There's a nice post by Sarah Hatter at the 37signals blog about the lovely design of an old Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. This reminds me of my early typewriting history. My first typewriter, which I bought at a used typewriter shop, was a huge, heavy, ugly, early-model IBM Selectric — it looked pretty much like this. Every keystroke made a deafening racket, like a gunshot, and once, when I had thoughtlessly put a portable TV on the desk next to it, I hit the return key and the returning platen smashed into the back of the TV, knocking a hole in the case, breaking the CRT, and sending the already-ruined machine crashing to the floor.

So, risking a hernia, I packed up the Selectric and took it back to the shop and traded it in for one of these. What a beautiful machine. Everything I wrote from my senior year in high school through my last class in graduate school I wrote on that Smith-Corona. Its distinctive typeface became as much a part of my identity as a writer as my own handwriting, maybe more so. I could never throw it away or sell it — it’s still in its original case in my basement. As soon as I get back home I’m going to take it out and pet it for a while.

But once I started work on a dissertation the dear old Smith-Corona was no longer practical, so I bought one of these, thereby trading in one kind of beauty for another. It was a pretty good trade.

me and my Kindle

I pause in my Manhattan festivities to bring you this message.

One day a few months ago, I stood in my local Borders bookstore with a big pile of books in the crook of my arm. I had Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem — which I ended up reviewing in these virtual pages, another Stephenson novel I hadn’t managed to catch up to, a couple of large works of history, including Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation . . . my arm was starting to hurt. I found a seat and looked over my haul. I wanted them all, but . . . well, the print was pretty small in a couple of them — an increasingly significant factor as my eyes age in ways that optometric technology can only imperfectly address. Most of them, I noticed, because of their size, would be at least a little awkward to handle. And then, where was I going to put them? Every time I bring books to my house or office I have to get rid of other books, or store them somewhere, in order to make room for the new arrivals.

Forget this, I said to myself. I’m getting a Kindle. And I did.

I’ve now read a dozen or more books on my Kindle, and my verdict is: I love it. I don't use it to read every kind of book, and wouldn't even if every kind of book were available on the Kindle; it has distinct limitations; but I love it. And I think the critique of it made by the otherwise admirable Christine Rosen, in the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, is generally off base. In future posts, I’ll explain what I think is so great about the Kindle, why I think Rosen’s criticisms largely misfire, and which among limitations of the current Kindle can and cannot be overcome in future versions. So please stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

unncessary annoyances

John Gruber had a nice post a couple of weeks back about how the iPhone's version of Safari simply dispenses with showing the HTTP prefix to URLs, presumably in order to save space on a very small screen. Which makes me think: why have we been looking at HTTP:// and HTTPS:// all these years? Damn, those are ugly. And totally unnecessary (especially since most browsers have other ways to alert us to secure pages than the S at the end of HTTPS). The URL fields of our browsers, which most of us spend a lot of time looking at, still retain way too many unnecessary annoyances. Firefox has at least figured out that if I accidentally type out a comma in google,com I meant to type a period — but if I type in culture11,com its Awesome Bar, being rather less than Awesome in such circumstances, sends me to the Google search page, which asks me if I meant to type in culture11.com. Meanwhile, Safari professes in all such circumstances to have no idea what I want from it. Surely it's past time for browsers to get a little smarter with exceedingly minor typos. And with that mini-rant I'll be signing for a couple of days — I'm off to Noo Yawk City for some very full days of meetings with my dear friends in the Project on Lived Theology. Be back soon!

the short goodbye

The coolest tool for personal organization I have ever seen is called Stikkit, but if that link works for you it probably won't for long. More about that in a moment.

A good and fairly detailed overview of Stikkit’s features may be found here, but in brief, it works like this: Stikkit gives you a field into which to enter text, and uses an extremely smart natural-language parser to figure out what kind of information you have entered. Just type in, or paste in, someone’s name and contact information and Stikkit recognizes phone numbers as phone numbers, email addresses as email addresses, and so on. (Incidentally, a similar intelligence was featured about a decade ago ago in Simson Garfinkel’s address book SBook, but Garfinkel abandoned that project. A real shame.) Tell Stikkit “remind me to go to lunch with David next Saturday at noon” and it puts that item on your calendar and sends you a reminder. Your contacts have short names (davidw, say) so that you can type “lunch with davidw” and Stikkit includes a link to that person’s contact information. Stikkit is also unusually attractive, especially for a web app.

I started using Stikkit right at the beginning and thought it was the most awesome thing I had ever seen. Yes, the parser sometimes made mistakes, but I could correct those, and it was at least 90% accurate. I expected that further development would make it even better, and I became a heavy user, offering frequent feedback to the Stikkit team, who seemed to appreciate it. The service was free, but I expected that at some point it would cost me something, and I was ready to pay.

But then development slowed, and eventually stopped. The Stikkit team stopped answering my emails, and stopped answering questions on the forums. Then they announced that they were going to be using the Stikkit engine to undergird a different project they called Sandy, which, they said, would be an even better way to do what Stikit does.

Well, I took a look at Sandy and didn’t care for her at all. But even if I had, my suspicions were raised. If the team — the company, by the way, is called values of n and is headed up by the gifted programmer Rael Dornfest — could so quickly and silently abandon Stikkit, might they not do the same with Sandy? I immediately decided that I couldn't trust them with all my data, so I exported it as best I could and found other solutions.

Good thing, too, because values of n is shutting down, and both Stikkit and Sandy are going offline on December 19. Read the comments of the post I just linked to, or the comments here and you’ll get just a taste of the anger that’s being directed at Dornnfest, who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who never expected such a response.

I don't feel I can blame people for being angry. They have invested tons of time, if not money, in a system that is now going to disappear in a puff of smoke, another Web 2.0 casualty. And it seems odd that Dornfest, as far as anyone call tell, never even sought a revenue model: many people are saying that they would be more than happy to pay for Stikkit or Sandy if Dornfest would just give them the chance. But nope, it’s all going to evaporate into the ether. Very sad, and puzzling. But no one has a legal (or a moral?) obligation to offer an online service any longer than they want to — especially if that service is free.

Dornfest, interestingly, is going to work for Twitter, and will be bringing along some of the technologies he has developed. But in what form? And will anything of the brilliant Stikkit model of free-form data entry survive? And how concerned should we users be that Twitter has no revenue model either?

What are the lessons of all this? I can imagine a few, but I’m wondering what you readers think.

digital slime molds

Steven Frank is a programmer — he’s one of the co-counders of Panic, one of the most highly respected makers of Macintosh software — who used to maintain a blog. In his last post to the blog, he announced that he was going to be suspending it and — I like this word — “outsourcing” what used to be on the blog to other venues. You can see by following that first link what he means: Flickr for photos, YouTube for videos, Twitter for microblogging, and so on. Curiously, I had recently done something similar on the front page my own site, deciding to treat it not as a home for information but rather a portal from which my various online presences could be accessed.

Perhaps the days of the blog as a one-stop shot for discovering someone’s life — their commentary, announcements, photos, home videos, recipes, whatever — are passing. It’s hard to resist the lure of tools that are beautifully engineered and precisely calibrated to do specialized tasks well. Blog software in general — Tumblr being the most prominent exception that I know of — has not kept up with our need for speed and ease. It is so much easier to upload photos to Flickr, adding a tag or two, than to upload them to your blog; it is easier and quicker still to tweet than to post a comment on your blog — a comment, by the way, in my opinion anyhow, that you’d have been likely to inflate beyond its necessary size because you’ve gone to all the trouble to create a new post. (You can see that I think that the concision imposed by Twitter is by and large a good thing. Most blog posts are longer than they need to be, unless they’re dealing with ideas, in which case they’re too short. Like this one. I think.)

But this “outsourcing” to various specialized tools tends to fragment us, leaving the various parts of our lives scattered all over the web. This can be a disorienting experience. It’s for this reason, I think, that Tumblr (other blog software may do this too) allows users to feed their tweets, posts from other blogs, videos from YouTube and Vimeo, and so on to their tumblelog. Tumblr is striving, then, to be a new kind of aggregator: not gathering information on a particular set of topics from all over the web, but gathering you from all over the web.

Our online lives keep dividing and reforming, like some kind of digital slime mold.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Le Clézio on books

The new Nobel laureate in literature, Jean-Marie Le Clézio, gave his official laureate’s lecture to the Swedish Academy on Sunday, and one of his main points of emphasis was “information poverty” in much of the world. Le Clézio has spent a good deal of his life in developing nations — as a boy he lived for a time in Nigeria, and as an adult lived in Mexico and, for a time, with the semi-nomadic Embera-Wounaan people of Panama — and has done a good deal of teaching, so he’s speaking from experience here. It turns out that he’s an advocate of the technology of the book.

“To provide nearly everyone on the planet with a liquid crystal display is utopian. . . . Are we not, therefore, in the process of creating a new elite, of drawing a new line to divide the world between those who have access to communication and knowledge, and those who are left out?” In such a situation, it’s important to remember that the book “is practical, easy to handle, economical. It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate.”
Le Clézio’s primary recommendations: “Joint publication with developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and mobile libraries, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages – which are often clearly in the majority – would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.”
These are important points, especially since “information poverty” is typically at its greatest in communities without reliable electrical power and where, therefore, the use of computers is problematic.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Greetings, people of earth

Hello, and welcome to a new blog about technologies of reading and research and, well, knowledge. I'm not going to turn this first post into a manifesto, because manifestos tend to be a lot more boring than they're meant to be, and in any case if you hang around you'll see what I'm up to. But in brief:

I'm a fifty-year-old professor of English and therefore, as you might suspect, a lifelong reader. Books and magazines have been near the core of my identity since I learned to read at age three. I love the printed word and think that it embodies a set of technologies whose virtues can't be replaced by other media. But I also have a deep interest in and attachment to the online world; I tend to get pretty excited about what I can do, what I can learn, what I can read, and in general what I can experience online.

I'm interested in how reading on the page differs from reading on screens; in how different kinds of screens enable different kinds of knowledge; in the strategies and tools we employ for information gathering, for information ordering, and for information evaluating. I think a lot about linear and non-linear forms of organizing mental experience, and the technologies that make such organization easier or harder. I wonder about whether we're really losing serendipity, as so many people say. I'm fascinated by the various speeds at which technologies move and by our ability (or, sometimes, inability) to match those speeds. I wonder what libraries are for and what they will be for.

I have had a few things to say about these subjects in the past, and some of those things are online. There’s this critique of the blogosphere which I don't actually repent of, despite my presence here and elsewhere online. I’ve reflected on the disagreement between Steven Johnson and Mark Bauerlein about the values and dangers of online life. I’ve written about serendipity and about how people in the sixteenth century dealt with information overload. And many of my thoughts about these issues began when, about eight years ago, I started experimenting, in my usual incompetent way, with Linux: I wrote about that experiment, and the reflections it prompted, in a series of essays for Books & Culture that later appeared in my collection of essays Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling.

So please check in to see what I'm up to. I highly recommend the RSS feed; this is just the season for it.