Books

Quotes

Read promiscuously

To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.

Matuschak on book absorbtion

Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

[...]

Some people may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow for entertainment value, but in exchange for their tens of millions of collective hours, I suspect many readers—or maybe even most readers—expected to walk away with more. Why else would we feel so startled when we notice how little we’ve absorbed from something we’ve read?

All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.

Literature and storytelling games

When a technology is surpassed, and we can see the book as a form of technology, it is rarely rendered entirely obsolete. Often, it becomes a niche concern or finds that its very limitations are strengths. The simplicity, clarity and imaginative capacity of literature offers something that games, which immerse the player in immaculately-rendered environments, can lack.

Games like 80 Days, for instance, have revived the tradition while others like Firewatch have incorporated aspects of text-based adventures. And while games like Gone Home and Tacoma are spatial explorations, there are traces of literary mysteries within them, in the way clues emerge, stories unfold and the player becomes increasingly absorbed. The balance of storytelling and interactivity is key. We want to feel we discover things, even when they were placed there for us to find.

Books as warmup

Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later


Notes

Ye olde colophon

A common colophon from the days of hand writing or copying manuscripts was “Finished, thank God.”

Weird Old Book Finder

Clive Thompson has made a wonderful little site called Weird Old Book Finder, where you can input a search term and get a random old book in return. I tried searching for “food” and was presented with this mouthful of a title from 1859: “The Curiosities of Food; or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom” (Google Books) The gist of it is: if an animal exists, someone has made good eatin’ out of it. It reads like some explorer has traveled the world and eaten his way through a list of exotic and endangered animals. Elephant’s paw? Yes, please! Here’s a taste:

The armadillo, remarkable for its laminated shell, when baked in its scaly coat is a good treat, the flesh being considered delicate eating, somewhat like a rabbit in taste and colour. The flesh of the large twelve-banded Brazilian one (Dasypus Tatouay) is said to be the best of all. In South America there are several species of armadillo, all of which are used for food when met with.