October 12, 2006

I Not Read All The Time

Thanks to Matty Y I read this great piece on "How Not To Read."

Actually, I get a lot of flack from friends about about the fact that I don't read many books these days. There's a great episode of "The Show with Ze Frank" that deals with the concept of the increasing tradeoff of more information at a lower quality. I'll find a link to the specific show when I get home. In the mean time, the basic concept is that we're increasingly exposed to massive amounts of information and that in order to absorb this information we're willing to accept a bit less detail or a bit more noise in the signal. In order to cram thousands of songs on our computers and ipods so that they're just a click away we accept lower sound fidelity. Or, as is partially dealt with in "How Not To Read," we're willing to take a Cliff's Notes version of a book to avoid reading it. Frankly, it's not that I don't read. I spend the majority of my free time reading, but I rarely read books and when I do I frequently skim. Why *should* I read Bob Woodward's new book if I can get the key information through a handfull of websites and television appearances. There are so many concepts out there that I feel like I want/need to absorb that I just don't have time to read everyone's book.

Don't get me wrong, I'll read a small handful of novels in a given year, but frequently I find out the main plots and important details of a story and just avoid the book altogether. The bottom line is that I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. I can sleep on a train, I can sleep on a plane. Anywhere Samiam might want to take me, I could ease the travel with a nap. That being the case, if you put me in a comfortable chair or bed and it's relatively warm and quiet, I'm going to fall asleep really quick. I just don't take enough pleasure out of the ritual of reading to do it all that often and it takes way too long for me to do it that often.

Hell, I Cliff Notes movies too. Basically, whether we're talking about Shakespeare, Scorcese, or political science, I'm interested in the knowledge I can get from them and apply in life. I want to be able to drop a quote from Hamlet or Mean Streets (which I haven't seen, by the way) in conversation or an internet post. I want to be able to use Rawls' philosophy in a debate. I want to be able to answer a question about American history if somebody asks. I want to be able to do all these things and I don't really care how I get the information that allows me to do that, but I know that I don't have time to take the long route to all that information.

What do you guys think? Are we better off reading 100 Wikipedia articles on 100 different subjects or should we spend the time plowing through a 400 page book instead? What is the value of the activities that traditionally have been the source of information? If we can get the information in a way faster than those traditional means, is there some reason why the traditional means is still relevant?

1 comment:

Noumena said...

When I started grad school for the first time, four years ago, I lived four blocks from a really nice Chicagoland microchain (Barbara's books, which has I think five locations). I spent nearly $300 on books that year (not included books for courses), read pretty much all of them, and I visited that bookstore almost weekly.

For a year and a couple months now, I have lived three blocks from the Notre Dame bookstore, which has absolutely outstanding sections devoted to any academic discipline you care to name. Outside of books for courses, I think I bought two little books there, totally around $25. In the past year, I've spent maybe $150 in books, and I've read maybe two of those. Currently, the stack of interesting books to read when I get the time is almost 2 1/2 feet tall. Some of those have been in that stack for about two years.

I simply don't have time to even skim these books. I put in 70-80 hours a week, studying and teaching and all that, and I often don't feel like I'm spending enough time on reading for the courses I'm taking. So skimming the NY Times and the Chron once or twice a day, watching the Daily Show, and keeping tabs on a handful of blogs is the only source of news I have time for. So, yes, as a matter of necessity, I do sacrifice the signal/noise ratio in order to get this information faster. Without that compression, I would have no way to get it at all.