In Praise of William Deresiewicz

I’ve read three long, fascinating essays by English professor William Deresiewicz over the last two days: Solitude and Leadership:If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts; Love on Campus: Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor (and he’s not talking about the bed-shaking kind, unless one’s partner is in paper form); and The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers.

I don’t agree with everything he’s written in those pieces, but their scope and unexpectedness is refreshing: in all three cases, he takes potentially tired themes (people are distracted a lot today; a great deal of film and fiction depicts randy professors sleeping with students; and elite colleges are training too many hoop jumpers instead of thinkers) and goes with them to unexpected places: how Heart of Darkness depicts bureaucracy and finding yourself; the erotic intensity of ideas and how they can be mingled with erotic intensity of the more conventional variety; and the entitlement complex that paradoxically can scare people into hewing to the narrow path. Even my summaries of a small portion of where he goes in each essay is hopelessly inadequate, which is part of what makes those essays so good.

The three are not all that separate: they all deal with conformity, individuality, college life, and the place of the university in society. Read together, they have more cohesiveness than many entire books. Most importantly, however, they go places I haven’t even thought about going, which is their most useful and unusual feature of all.

Jeff Sypeck pointed me to one and Robert Nagle to another; I only know both through e-mail, which is a very small but real demonstration of the Internet’s true power to make connections. All three essays might play into my eventual dissertation; at the very least, they’ve changed the way I think about many of the issues discussed, which to me is more valuable still.

Finishing The Shadow of the Wind

After rereading The Shadow of the Wind (previously mentioned here and here), I’m astonished and breathless at the conclusion. The first and second time through I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to the closing pages and how they deftly finish the circle while simultaneously pointing to the future.

I can’t believe I missed them.

I also hadn’t realized just how effectively the story’s stories-within-a-story devices work because on earlier reads I think I got too caught up the plot to appreciate what was happening. Now I have enough perspective and restraint to appreciate how Daniel, the protagonist, functions as a detective in a way that moves him from passive boy to active adult. The stories he gets others to tell him are incomplete, and part of what’s amazing about the novel is its transition from story to story and place to place.

In the last two years I’ve begun watching for those transitions with much greater (and professional) care: weaker novels make them stand out, while stronger ones make you forget they exist because each move from chapter to chapter and section to section feels completely natural. The Shadow of the Wind is certainly among the latter. By the time Nuria Monfort’s story appears in full, I was aching to know it, yet savoring its telling. I can point to one or two technical weaknesses in the story—how come it sounds like the rest of the narration, denying her a unique voice?—I don’t care. The novel is too strong for minor points like that to hold it up.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr

One irony of this post is that you’re reading a piece on the Internet about a book that is in part about how the Internet is usurping the place of books. In The Shallows, Carr argues that the Internet encourages short attention spans, skimming, shallow knowledge, and distraction, and that this is a bad thing.

He might be right, but his argument misses one essential component: the absolute link between the Internet and distraction. He cites suggestive research but never quite crosses the causal bridge from the Internet as inherently distracting, both because of links and because of the overwhelming potential amount of material out there, and that we as a society and as a people are now endlessly distracted. Along the way, there are many soaring sentiments (“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book”) and clever quotes (Nietzsche as quoted by Carr: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”), but that causal link is still weak.

I liked many of the points Carr made; that one about Nietzsche is something I’ve meditated over before, as shown here and here (I’ve now distracted you and you’re probably less likely to finish this post than you would be otherwise; if I offered you $20 for repeating the penultimate sentence in the comments section, I’d probably get no takers); I think our tools do cause us to think differently in some way, which might explain why I pay more attention to them than some bloggers do. And posts on tools and computer set ups and so forth seem to generate a lot of hits; Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have is among the more popular Grant Writing Confidential posts.

I use Devonthink Pro as described by Steven Berlin Johnson, which supplements my memory and acts as research tool, commonplace book, and quote database, and probably weakens my memory while allowing me to write deeper blog posts and papers. Maybe I remember less in my mind and more in my computer, but it still takes my mind to give context to the material copied into the database.

In fact, Devonthink Pro helped me figure out a potential contradiction in Carr’s writing. On page 209, he says:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

But on page 47 he says: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.” So if “sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” then is it true that “The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function?” The two statements aren’t quite mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Maybe reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being will clear up or deepen whatever confusion exists, since he a) went deep but b) like many philosophers, is hard to read and is closer to a machine for generating multiple interpretations than an illuminator and simplifier of problems. This could apply to philosophy in general as seen from the outside.

This post mirrors some of Carr’s tendencies, like the detour in the preceding paragraph. I’ll get back to the main point for a moment: Carr’s examples don’t necessarily add up to proving his argument, and some of them feel awfully tenuous. Some are also inaccurate; on page 74 he mentions a study that used brain scans to “examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction” and cites Nicole K. Speer’s journal article “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences,” which doesn’t mention fiction and uses a memoir from 1951 as its sample text.

Oops.

That’s a relatively minor issue, however, and one that I only discovered because I found the study interesting enough to look up.

Along the way in The Shallows we get lots of digressions, and many of them are well-trod ones: the history of the printing press; the origins of the commonplace books; the early artificial intelligence program ELIZA; Frederick Winslow Taylor and his efficiency interest; the plasticity of the brain; technologies that’ve been used for various purposes, including metaphor.

Those digressions almost add up to one of my common criticisms of nonfiction books, which is that they’d be better as long magazine articles. The Shallows started as one, and one I’ve mentioned before: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer: maybe. The answer now, two years and 200 pages later: maybe. Is the book a substantial improvement on the article? Maybe. You’ll probably get 80% of the book’s content from the article, which makes me think you’d be better off following the link to the article and printing it—the better not to be distracted by the rest of The Atlantic. This might tie into the irony that I mentioned in the first line of this post, which you’ve probably forgotten by now because you’re used to skimming works on the Internet, especially moderately long ones that make somewhat subtle arguments.

Offline, Carr says, you’re used to linear reading—from start to finish. Online, you’re used to… something else. But we’re not sure what, or how to label the reading that leads away from the ideal we’ve been living in: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

Again, maybe, which is the definitive word for analyzing The Shallows: but we don’t actually have a name for this kind of mind, and it’s not apparent that the change is as major as Carr describes: haven’t we always made disparate connections among many things? Haven’t we always skimmed until we’ve found what we’re looking for, and then decided to dive in? His point is that we no longer do dive in, and he might be right—for some people; but for me, online surfing, skimming, and reading coexists with long-form book reading. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to get through The Shallows.

Still, I don’t like reading on my Kindle very much because I’ve discovered that I often tend to hop back and forth between pages. In addition, grad school requires citations that favor conventional books. And for all my carping about the lack of causal certainty regarding Carr’s argument, I do think he’s on to something because of my own experience. He says:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

He says friends have reported similar experiences. I feel the same way as him and his friends: the best thing I’ve found for improving my productivity and making reading and writing easier is a program called Freedom, which prevents me from getting online unless I reboot my iMac. It throws enough of a barrier between me and the Internet that I can’t easily distract myself through e-mail or Hacker News (Freedom has also made writing this post slightly harder, because during the first draft, I haven’t been able to add links to various appropriate places, but I think it worth the trade-off, and I didn’t realize I was going to write this post when I turned it on). Paul Graham has enough money that he uses another computer for the same purpose, as he describes in the linked essay, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Disconnecting Distraction” (sample: “After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction, because I didn’t realize that it evolves.” Guess what distraction evolved into: the Internet).

Another grad student in English Lit expressed shock when I told him that I check my e-mail at most once a day and shook for every two days, primarily in an effort not to distract myself with electronic kibble or kipple. Carr himself had to do the same thing: he moves to Colorado and jettisons much of his electronic life, and he “throttled back my e-mail application […] I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began to keeping the program closed much of the day.” I work better that way. And I think I read better, or deeper, offline.

For me, reading a book is a very different experience from searching the web, in part because most of the websites I visit are exhaustible much faster than books. I have a great pile of them from the library waiting to be read, and an even greater number bought or gifted over the years. Books worth reading seem to go on forever. Websites don’t.

But if I don’t have that spark of discipline to stay off the Internet for a few hours at a time, I’m tempted to do the RSS round-robin and triple check the New York Times for hours, at which point I look up and say, “What did I do with my time?” If I read a book—like The Shallows, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’m most of the way through now—I look up in a couple of hours and know I’ve done something. This is particularly helpful for me because, as previously mentioned, I’m in grad school, which means I have to be a perpetual reader (if I didn’t want to be, I’d find another occupation).

To my mind, getting offline can become a comparative advantage because, like Carr, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” and that someone is me and that someone is the Internet. But I can’t claim this is true for all people in all places, even as I tell my students to try turning off their Internet access and cell phones when they write their papers. Most of them no doubt don’t. But the few who do learn how to turn off the electronic carnival are probably getting something very useful out of that advice. The ones who don’t probably would benefit from reading The Shallows because they’d at least become aware of the possibility that the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that might not be beneficial to us, however tenuous the evidence (notice my hedging language: “at least,” “the possibility” “might not”).

Alas: they’re probably the ones least likely to read it.

When dialog works: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind

I’m rereading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which gets better with each repetition; the first time I got lost in the plot and was more annoyed by the occasional cliche than I am now. Now the cliches seem more like cheek and a nod back at pulpy origins. This bit of dialog reminds me about a lot of what works in the novel, especially the over-wrought language of Fermín, the older rascal who takes to advising the young and overly proper Daniel:

‘People who have no life always have to stick their nose in the life of others,’ said Fermín. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘About my lack of guts.’
‘Right. A textbook case. Trust you me, young man. Go after your girl. Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living. You heard what the priest said. Like a flash.’
‘She’s not my girl.’
‘Well, then, make her yours before someone else takes her, especially the little tin soldier.’
‘You talk as if Bea were a trophy.’
‘No, as if she were a blessing,’ Fermín corrected. ‘Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.’

I love the second line, and the first spoken by Daniel, whose acknowledgment that they’re discussing “my lack of guts” implicitly admits that Fermín is already right, and Daniel knows it, but he still needs to be talked into doing something about it. He’s too passive—and knows that, too—but is also so passive that he doesn’t really know how to stop being passive. He can only offer objections when he should be as direct about Bea as he is about solving the mystery of Julian Carax, which is the plot’s primary strands and one that interweaves with the others.

That said, the passage isn’t perfect, and “trust you me” is probably a translator’s error. But I didn’t notice it as I read: only caught it as I began writing this. The novel is sufficiently involving to make one forgive minor sins. “Trust you me” could also be Fermín’s character: he’s stuff with half-believed folk wisdom (“Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living”), and only half believing it that lets such wisdom be funny—and, strangely, truer than it would be from someone delivering ridiculous lines like “Destiny is usually just around the corner” straight. Fermín also does imply that Bea is an object (which is objectionable; how many of us want to be “a trophy?”), but he doesn’t believe it: that half-belief lets him get away with it. We love his cheek, his pretend expertise (Daniel is “A textbook case,” as if textbooks are written about smitten adolescents, rather than novels), and it’s sustained throughout the novel.

When dialog works: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind

I’m rereading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which gets better with each repetition; the first time I got lost in the plot and was more annoyed by the occasional cliche than I am now. Now the cliches seem more like cheek and a nod back at pulpy origins. This bit of dialog reminds me about a lot of what works in the novel, especially the over-wrought language of Fermín, the older rascal who takes to advising the young and overly proper Daniel:

‘People who have no life always have to stick their nose in the life of others,’ said Fermín. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘About my lack of guts.’
‘Right. A textbook case. Trust you me, young man. Go after your girl. Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living. You heard what the priest said. Like a flash.’
‘She’s not my girl.’
‘Well, then, make her yours before someone else takes her, especially the little tin soldier.’
‘You talk as if Bea were a trophy.’
‘No, as if she were a blessing,’ Fermín corrected. ‘Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.’

I love the second line, and the first spoken by Daniel, whose acknowledgment that they’re discussing “my lack of guts” implicitly admits that Fermín is already right, and Daniel knows it, but he still needs to be talked into doing something about it. He’s too passive—and knows that, too—but is also so passive that he doesn’t really know how to stop being passive. He can only offer objections when he should be as direct about Bea as he is about solving the mystery of Julian Carax, which is the plot’s primary strands and one that interweaves with the others.

That said, the passage isn’t perfect, and “trust you me” is probably a translator’s error. But I didn’t notice it as I read: only caught it as I began writing this. The novel is sufficiently involving to make one forgive minor sins. “Trust you me” could also be Fermín’s character: he’s stuff with half-believed folk wisdom (“Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living”), and only half believing it that lets such wisdom be funny—and, strangely, truer than it would be from someone delivering ridiculous lines like “Destiny is usually just around the corner” straight. Fermín also does imply that Bea is an object (which is objectionable; how many of us want to be “a trophy?”), but he doesn’t believe it: that half-belief lets him get away with it. We love his cheek, his pretend expertise (Daniel is “A textbook case,” as if textbooks are written about smitten adolescents, rather than novels), and it’s sustained throughout the novel.

Progress, extra time, efficiency, and consumer goods

Robin Hanson, typically insightful:

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ‘10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal. Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different. Besides a few big changes, most things seem not pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes.

We don’t notice the (relatively) small, cumulative changes that add up to major improvements in life unless we’re paying attention to them, which Hanson is drawing attention to here. If we don’t have our cars repaired as often, we have more time to think about and do other things. This means we have more time to think about art, technology, life, and so forth, although most of that surplus is probably used watching TV, searching for pornography, and so on.

But computers have improved too, just like cars: around 2002 or 2003, a typical computer became more than fast enough for most typical activities aside from high-end gaming and video editing; by now, the developed world is awash in computers that are “good enough.” Some relatively small percentage of us will use those computers to help us think, help us make things, and help others learn.

Of course, most people spend that extra time watching TV; according to the Los Angeles Times:

“The Nielsen Co.’s ‘Three Screen Report — referring to televisions, computers and cellphones — for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That’s about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.”

But fewer are doing so now than once did, which is a large part of Clay Shirky’s point in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, a book worth checking out from the library but probably not worth buying. He says:

Today people have new freedom to act in concert and in public. In terms of personal satisfaction, this good is fairly uncomplicated—even the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.

The “freedom to act in concert” is significant because the costs of doing so are low. Still, we don’t just have more time because the cost of doing things other than watching TV have fallen, although that’s important, as Shirky discusses elsewhere in his book—we have more time because things like cars, as Hanson points out, don’t demand as much time as they did. And that change is fairly recent; as John Scalzi wrote a few months ago:

You have to get to about 1997 before there’s a car I would willingly get into these days. As opposed to today, when even the cheap boxy cars meant for first-time buyers have decent mileage, will protect you if you’re hit by a semi, and have more gizmos and better living conditions than my first couple of apartments.

The question still is: what are we going to do with all that spare time, spare computing power, and spare mental capacity? The answers (so far) look positive, but I don’t have the foresight (and neither does Shirky—he points out that we have it, but can’t really say what will happen) to predict specific changes rather than the scale of those changes. In a very small way, I’m part of the answer, since I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing right now 20 years ago. About 10 years ago, it would’ve been much harder because blogging software hadn’t matured. Now it’s incredibly easy. That’s progress, even if most blog posts don’t look much like progress because they concern cats, celebrity scans, and so on.

So you want to be a writer, or an entrepreneur, or…

I’m reading Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book Rework, which has lots of potentially pernicious advice in it but also has this bit, which is good: “What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.” This is equally true of writing, but a lot of would-be writers seem to like the idea of writing more than the actual writing itself.

I often offer this challenge to people who say they want to or wish they could write a novel:

1) Turn off your Internet access and cell phone.

2) Write chapter one over three days (or so; the actual timeframe doesn’t matter, as long as it’s short).

3) Send me the result. I’ll read it and send it back to you.

So far, I think one person I’ve offered that challenge has taken me up on it, and I never got chapter two. I interpret this as meaning that most people who say they want to write a novel (or write anything else, or learn the guitar, or get laid more, or lose weight, or start cooking, or any number of other skilled endeavors) don’t actually want to, because if they did, they would start today. If you shoot for, say, 500 words a day, you’ll have a pile of around 80,000 in six months, leaving some room for missed days, editing, and so forth.

If you shoot for 1,000 words a day, you’ll have it in three months.

This, however, is only the start, which I didn’t realize when I was nearer to the start than I am now. But if you’re not putting in the seat time, writing, you’re not going to do anything and all your intentions aren’t going to matter. Fried and Hansson are pointing this out in the context of business, where it’s equally valid, and there are probably an equal number of people saying, “I should start a business” and “I should write.” Most of them are probably better off not acting on their impulses. But if they do, why not start?

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