Sunday, January 06, 2013

We'll Burn Fires and Lights and We'll Talk of the Old Ways

Razib Khan:

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

I know it's a little awkward to end that excerpt right there, but I don't care. I just had to include that last line. Anyway, please continue!

...If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

The fact is, most people stop reading as soon as they escape the clutches of teachers who force them to do it. The book-buying public has always been a relatively small group. Carr's big idea, though, appeals to a much larger group: those who would like to think of themselves as readers, as deep thinkers, even though they actually spend most of their time sending texts and playing games on their phones. Those who have been raised with the assumption that they have unlimited potential, but have never done anything particularly impressive with it. See, you've never gotten around to writing the Great American Novel or reading all the classics, not because you've never distinguished between whether you really want to do it or if you just think it's the sort of thing you should aspire to, or because you shrink from the necessary sacrifices and don't want to admit it, but because your gadgets have rewired your brain.

In other words, it's not surprising that a guy who has made quite a career for himself by telling people what they want to hear might succumb to the temptation to give himself some of that sweet reassurance.


  1. I like paper as much as the next guy but I just took a Kindle on vacation with two new sci fi novels, a history of philosophy, an anthology of poetry, some laughably bad porn (it was free!), newspapers, etc. I'm afraid convenience wins if it's that much of a difference. I found a Steven Pinker book - The Stuff of Thought - in the ship's library, which I was going to buy (download, course - it's huge!) when I got home, but the first few chapters were so wordy that I couldn't tell if the rest was worth $14. You have an opinion of his stuff?

  2. Do I have an opinion, he asks!

    I read The Blank Slate about a decade ago and liked it. I have The Stuff of Thought (got it in hardcover for a couple bucks, haha!) and The Language Instinct (a buck or so in paperback, haha again!) on the shelf, along with the couple dozen other books I haven't gotten around to reading yet. The reviews I've seen of Better Angels haven't interested me in checking that one out, though.

    Like any popular intellectual, you can find people who think he's the greatest and others who think he's a drooling idiot. My experience has been that he's usually worth reading, and the topics he addresses are interesting to me, but I'm in no position to judge how accurate his output is.

  3. I thought you would have read him. I liked "The Stuff of Thought", but the first hundred pages can be summarized: "Language reflects how we categorize experience" (with some interesting examples and intro liguistic analysis.) I'm not sure I have the patience to go on -am I going to discover something awesome in all those words eventually?

  4. Brian M5:46 PM

    Music...I was a firm Luddite when it came to music. Until I discovered (after a few years) how utterly amazing iTunes (boo! hiss! evil empire!) is for those with...esoteric...tastes. Not too much independent Russian Doom Metal down at the local record shop!

    Then there is amazon (boo hiss) lastFM, and the amazing latter is my favorite. Plenty of dross there, but some simply amazing stuff, too!

  5. I've literally read thousands and thousands of books, but I can probably tick off the authors who have truly changed the entire way I understand and think about the world on my fingers, with some left over. But even those authors aren't necessarily saying anything profound, or dense, or profoundly dense; they just articulate a certain idea, or use a vivid metaphor, and suddenly, all sorts of patterns appear clear to you, and you see connections between disparate bits of knowledge that never meant anything to you before. Right place, right time, etc. The best writers often make me feel like they've finally pointed something out to me that I've been staring directly at for a long time without consciously noticing it.

    Like I said in that post of mine from last month that you liked, a lot of your ideas are taking shape in the darkened corners of your subconscious without you being aware of it. Sometimes a writer or thinker comes along at the right time and flips the lightswitch for you, and it all becomes visible.

    I have no way of knowing if Pinker will do that for you, but I'd say, as a general rule, that if you find the topic interesting, and the prose enjoyable, go ahead and stick with it. If nothing else, maybe the ideas will enrich your intellectual soil for something else to take root there.

  6. Yeah, if I want to keep indulging in escapist fantasy novels, I'll probably have to get a Kindle at some point, since a lot of those type of mass-market paperbacks aren't even being printed anymore. And the last time I went into my old independent record store, it was like a ghost town. They had been doing a fair trade in used CDs and vinyl, but even that couldn't keep them above water, I guess.

  7. Okay, thanks for the advice - see, if you had read Pinker and been bored to no end, you'd be saying something different.
    I thought you didn't read novels. As an experiment, I sorted Amazon's sci fi books by rating. The first dozen or so (!) were in the same series - "Wool" and "The Silo Series". Purchased, and I was not disappointed. It's the best I've read in a long time.

  8. I read Forgotten Realms fantasy novels for fun, but I'm extremely fiction-deficient otherwise. If fiction contained vitamin C, I'd be dying of scurvy. Maybe I'm excessively literal-minded or something, but I just find non-fiction for the general reader to be more thought-provoking than stories.

    I'm almost done with the book I'm currently on, so maybe I'll let The Stuff of Thought cut to the head of the line and report any impressions that come to me. I am nothing if not responsive to the voice of the people!