Friday, July 9, 2010

What you can learn from books * and * reviews

David Brooks: How I love to dislike him. He will start with an observation that makes sense to me - then blow it. Like in today's column, "The Medium Is the Medium."

Brooks begins the column by reporting on a study that found that disadvantaged kids who received books at the end of the school year - in other words, the kids typically affected by "summer slide" as measured in tests and grades - maintained higher reading scores than the kids who received no books. The results held even when they did not read the books. How and why? Here is the bit of sense:

But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

After this point is when Brooks blew it, at least for me.

I do not disagree entirely with the observations underlying a statement like this: "The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students." I teach college students, and I lament the fact every single day that too many of them are not better readers. I believe that were they better readers of books, they also might be better citizens and - gasp - better users of the Internet.

However. Brooks' exposition on the "culture" of the book versus the "culture" of the Internet makes me cranky as an anthropologist. Here again, "culture" or rather "cultures" become talked about as bounded and singular and consistent. Books and the Internet emerge from and coexist (and might or might not compete) in what we might call the one and the same "culture." In a book that I currently am perusing, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, linguist Dennis Baron reminds us:

The World Wide Web wasn't the first innovation in communication to draw some initial skepticism. Writing itself was the target of one early critic. Plato warned that writing would weaken memory, but he was more concerned that written words - mere shadows of speech - couldn't adequately represent meaning. His objections paled as more and more people began to structure their lives around handwritten documents (Baron 2009:x).

"Culture," and history, aside, Brooks' description of books as representing "a hierarchical universe" with "classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom" is exactly not the buzz that reading deserves or requires, esp. for the disadvantaged kids who likely already understand themselves as the beach reading of society.

His primary objection to the Internet is this:

Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

I have to wonder whether or not Brooks has any self-awareness of his own position in the old media - on the "important" and "prestigious" editorial page of the Gray Lady - because this sounds like his own crankiness as a columnist in a snit about the respect that he believe he should be shown?

However. Now I have placed my own snittiness on display.

I do not think there is anything inherently anarchical about the Internet. (In its own ways, it is also hierarchical.) It is a technology, like books are a technology, and it is what we make it to be.


While there might be nothing like reading Brooks to raise your (my) ire in the am, but I esp. learned much from reading this recent essay on "The Death and Life of the Book Review" in the June 21 issue of The Nation.

In it, John Palattella considers the past and present state of newspaper journalism and of the book review in particular:

Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can't earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

.... In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can mean that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

So, in Palattella's perspective, there is more at stake in book reviews than a particular book or even books and reading at large. As, dare I even suggest, Brooks also contends, it is "culture" and history.

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