Monday, January 7, 2013

Intellectual Culture

I'm reading Noam Chomsky's latest book of interviews with David Barsamian, Power Systems, just published this month by Metropolitan Books.  As usual, there's plenty of good stuff in it.  For example, Barsamian asks Chomsky how he manages to read so much: "We're sitting in your office, surrounded by piles and piles of books.  How do you get through all this stuff?"
Unfortunately, I don't.  This is the urgent pile.  There are many more stacks elsewhere.  But one of the painful experiences which I try to avoid as much as possible is to calculate how much time it would take, if I read constantly, to go through them.  And reading a book doesn't just mean turning the pages.  It means thinking about it, identifying parts that you want to go back to, asking how to place it in a broader context, pursuing the ideas.  There's no point in reading a book if you let it pass before your eyes and then forget about it ten minutes later.  Reading a book is an intellectual exercise, which stimulates thought, questions, imagination [103].
That gave me a small thrill of recognition, from the piles and piles of books to the despair that follows from thinking about how long it will take read them to the process of reading itself.  Chomsky goes on:
I suspect that will disappear.  You see various signs of it.  There has been a shift in my own classes over the past ten or twenty years.  Whereas I once could make casual literary references and people more or less knew what I was talking about, this is less and less true.  I can see from correspondence that people are constantly asking questions about something they saw on YouTube but not about an article or a book.  They very often rightly ask, "You said so-and-so.  What's the evidence for it?"  In fact, in an article I wrote the same week as that talk, there might have been footnotes and discussion, but it doesn't occur to them to look for that [103-4].
Oh dear.  I can't say for certain, of course, but I bet one reason why young people don't recognize Chomsky's "casual literary references" is that they come from works that were current when Chomsky was growing up, but which aren't current anymore.  The common culture that makes such allusions work is constantly changing over time, and always has been.  The only halfway stable body of literature that could have endured for more than a generation was the Greek and Roman canon, which was stable because it was closed, with no additions for over a thousand years.  But even in the days when a university education was built around that core, students were reading and writing new works in the vernacular, and they were as likely to be quoting soon-forgotten minor poets as the newer literary giants.  I know that today's undergraduates are still reading, but the works they know and quote are not any that Chomsky has had time to read.  I'm in the same boat: though I probably read more contemporary fiction than Chomsky does, I've read very little by the writers who are popular among twenty-somethings today.

"What does that mean for an intellectual culture, then?" Barsamian asks.
It's going to degrade the intellectual culture.  It can't help but do so.  It's a mixed story.  Take, say, electronic books.  They have advantages.  You have half a dozen books you can read on an airplane trip.  On the other hand, when I read a book I care about, I want to make comments in the margins, I want to underline things, I want to make notes on the flyleaf.  Otherwise I don't even know what to go back to.  You can't do that the same way with an electronic book.  Words just pass into your eyes.  Maybe they don't even stay in your brain [104].
And so on.  But wait -- write in a book?  I was brainwashed out of that from my earliest years as a reader, and I've never shaken the conditioning as an adult.  So I started by keeping notebooks, and eventually began writing notes on the computer as I read.  This has advantages, especially since it means I can search for "what to go back to" much more easily, and I can copy and paste what I've typed at will.  But I can't always write my notes when I'm reading, on the bus for example.  I used to see students in the university library making notes on index cards; now they're usually using their laptops.  From what I hear, e-books have made some advances, making it possible to make notes and bookmark passages.  People for whom that matters will adjust.

People for whom that matters, though, like Chomsky and me, are not typical readers.  We're atypical, probably even among people who've been to college.  The "intellectual culture," as I said, will adjust, even though I don't know exactly how.  Academics already have electronic tools for organizing material, which will filter down to non-academics who have use for them; ironically, the next group after academics will most likely be devout Christians who will use them for Bible study.  Older people, like Chomsky and me, will stick to the methods we know when we can't be bothered to adopt the newer ones.  (But look at Samuel Delany's remarks on hypertext, quoted here.)  While the number of people who read seriously, and the "intellectual culture" that includes them, may wax and wane, it would take an asteroid impact to wipe it out altogether.  Our rulers are ambivalent about literacy and intellectual work, but they need people who can do it to sustain themselves and their system.  This problem, I think, just constitutes one of Chomsky's blind spots.