Thursday, May 26, 2005

On Reading and Learning

As most of my friends know, I see little value in reading. Most books are really not worth it. I do not think that one's "soul" somehow gets "enlightened" by "literature". I do not think that one is somehow "bettered" by having mentally processed all the words in some "great novel". I am not impressed by people who read many books.

I am eternally grateful when a very popular novel is made in to a movie so that I can get the idea of what everyone is reading without having to actually read the damned book. Reading is often tedious, and generally time consuming. I only have a certain amount of reading time per week, and I have very strict priorities there.

Personally if find great pleasures in finding things out. I like understanding how the universe works. I like knowing what happened in the past. I really take great pleasure in grasping a new philosophical argument.

However, I have no idea why I should have to be forced to sit through endless prose to do it.

Mind you there are some things where the challenge is to figure out the text. Some math problems are there to be solved, and you couldn't care how the problem is stated, you just want to see if you can work out the solution. But sometimes, you just really care about the text. Like when one reads the Bible, sometimes figuring it out is the interesting part. One who sees the movie is missing the real interesting stuff there, namely the nuance. The Talmud, is the same way, one cannot simply see the film version (not that there could be one) the joy is in actually making your way through the tangled prose, and deciphering the complex logic. Many people want to just know what the books say, but that is a lesser adventure.

But in the general case actually reading the book does not seem all that important. That is why I am finding the Times' article about reading versus audio books so odd. Some people are displaying an odd prejudice against them. People who for whatever reason want to get to know the contents of a book should take it in, in the way they feel most comfortable.

When I was in first grade I wrote a science fiction short story (which has since been lost) in which students learned by injection. This is as reasonable a way as any to take in a book. If it works, why not. I wish I could just upload a few hundred books in to my brain and save myself the trouble of actually reading them.

Currently, the written word, the "printed page" in all its manifestations are our best medium for transmitting knowledge, but by far not our only one. People should make sue of whatever makes them happy, and authors should be grateful that people care about their books at all. There is a lot of competition for people's reading time given the billions of books out there, and if someone is listening to your book, you ought to be happy. Few books (and in my opinion, almost no fiction whatsoever) is that great that it is worth reading if the experience would be too tedious.

As an aside, I do love books. I own many, and I am very proud of my collection. But I do not see why I ought to read many of them. I own them for my own pleasure. It is an aesthetic thing, not a literacy thing.


Shosh said...

As I'm sure you already know, I couldn't disagree with you more. When we read, we press our minds to that of the author's and when things are well written, it's a tremendously intimate experience. People have different needs of course and perhaps you don't have a need for that kind of intimacy, or you just don't find it there. In the best of novels (yes, fiction!!) the hope and struggle and longing of an entire culture can be found symbolically in the lives of intricately woven characters. It's a history lesson that lets us look through the careful language of one person into a time and place. Don't panic, I know it's not history. It's "history."
Injecting books?
Getting there is half the fun (if not more).
The crackle of never before opened pages between my fingers and the smell of books is a sensory experience and I wouldn't want it any other way.
For me, books and the ideas in them aren't to be tackled, they're to be absorbed or imbibed.
However, I can think of a few ultra-thick "classics" that I'd rather have injected into me than suffer through reading.
As much as I'm wowed by cyberspace, nothing can replace the psychological comfort of curling up in a chair with a hot chocolate and my favorite book.......
I sound like a stodgy old fart and I don't care.

30 something said...

Your idea about injecting books was being entertained by biopsychologists for a number of decades. The phenomenon is known as “memory transfer”. Around the 1950 many labs reported that worms can be taught to do something new by being injected with RNA of other worms that had already been taught to do this. The experiment went something like this: A worm is taught to move in a certain way, like to scrunch up, to the presentation of a sensory stimulus such as a light. The worm is then ground up and its RNA is extracted and injected into another worm. Then, without conditioning, the light is presented to the second worm. If memory transfer had occurred the second worm would immediately scrunch up despite the fact that he would not ordinarily respond this way to the presentation of a light in the absense of conditioning.

There was quite a bit of excitement about this phenomenon. These experiments were replicated in many different labs and in many other experimental animals, including mammals such as mice and rats. Interestingly, the results of many of these experiments were published in top journal such as Science.

Can we, some people wondered, teach people calculus by injecting them with RNA of people who had already learned it?

Unfortunately, many labs could not replicate the results and, more importantly, there was no theoretical model that could explain how such a thing could be possible. And so, despite the fact that many labs continued to work on this phenomenon and report positive effects, this research program was eventually abandoned.

Karl said...

The worm experiment never made sense to me, though the idea sounds intriguing.

I recall telling one of my former girlfriends many years ago that I was just training her so I can mush her up and feed her to my next girlfriend.

It sounded funny at the time - in light of this experiment.

Justin Thorp said...

You don't think much of reading, yet you will write long passages that a bloke such as myself just happens upon. Isn't it ironic... don't you think? :-)