Q. Hi Alan. You're an English professor at Wheaton College, and your blog Text Patterns explores technologies of reading, writing, and research. Before we discuss innovations in that realm, let's talk about that old standby, the ink-and-paper book. You've argued that it's here to stay, and that it offers certain advantages that make it worth utilizing. Can you explain your reasoning, and tell us what you prefer to read on paper versus on screens? In your teaching, do you ever give student assignments that specify format? When I have kids will it matter if I read them Goodnight Moon on paper pages, a Kindle or an iPad?
Well, first of all, Goodnight Moon would look like crap on a Kindle: low-res black and white images, are you kidding me? And the iPad screen is not, at this point, very high-resolution either. Tim Bray wrote a fascinating post just the other day in which he pointed out that screen resolution of modern devices is just now approaching the pixel density that approximates print. Once we cross that threshold, many kinds of books, especially those featuring images, will become more plausible candidates for digital presentation.
That said, the paper codex is here to stay -- but whether it will remain dominant, well, I'm not so sure about that. And it is being complemented by multiple devices that alter the reading experience. Book-lovers tend to sneer about "the screen" -- and some techno-utopians bow down before "the screen" -- but in fact there are many different kinds of screens that we respond to, cognitively and emotionally, in very different ways. Reading a novel on a Kindle or a Nook is much closer to the experience of reading it on a paper codex than reading it on your laptop would be: you turn pages rather than scroll, you have no other tabs open, email and Twitter aren't pinging you, there are no (or few) hyperlinks. . . . I actually had the experience of having my reading concentration renewed when I got my Kindle. It helped me to get back to long-form reading, which my online life had made harder for me.
A great deal of the research I do I prefer to do online. It has been years since I read a scholarly or quasi-scholarly article on paper, though I have two or three hundred of them stored on my computer as PDFs. So, like everyone else reading these words, I read for different purposes and use different formats to do so.
Most of us adjust to this situation more-or-less unconsciously and in an ad hoc way: we might be reading something online and think, I need to print this out; or we might just have an inarticulate feeling that we'd rather read a particular book on paper rather than on a Kindle. But I think teachers are going to have to be more conscious of these matters and adjust their strategies for teaching attentive reading accordingly. Last semester, for the first time, I had students reading some of their assigned books on Kindles, and next summer, when I will be leading a summer study tour of England, I plan to put every text that I can on my Kindle so I don't have to schlep a big pile of books around the island for six weeks. Within a year or two I expect to have a much better handle on how to deal with these changes.
The book I am writing, which is a kind of commendation of reading for a digital age, deals with many of these matters. (It will be published by Oxford University Press sometime early next year, assuming I don't get too distracted by YouTube to finish it.)
Q. The archivists in research libraries are adept at organizing books, journals, letters, financial ledgers, photographs, and other physical material according to long established protocols. You've noted that digital information, whether stored on hard drives or floppy disks or video game cartridges, poses new challenges for this profession. What questions must it confront? Do you subscribe to any guiding philosophy in these matters?
Not my problem, thanks be to God. But I thought about this a lot last year, when I was spending a good deal of time in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, going through letters, manuscripts, and assorted papers of W. H. Auden. The work I did there was virtually identical, in its material aspects, to what I would have been doing had I been working on Charlotte Brontë or John Milton -- but what if I want to do archival research on Salman Rushdie? I would go to Emory University and . . . look at the Stickies he jotted on his old Mac? This is going to be strange. Wonderful in many ways, if the archivists can retrieve all the encoded data and make it available, but strange. And as my friend Matt Frost has commented, we'll probably need to address the data-conversion problem once every ten years or so, as file formats change. Archivists are now very aware of this, so it's not likely that much will be lost . . . but I do envision a day, a hundred years from now, when someone discovers Don DeLillo's stone-dead Dell netbook and über-geeks will be commissioned to reverse-engineer the damned thing to extract its data.
Q. Nicholas Carr often muses on whether the Internet age is good for human cognition. In The Atlantic he famously wondered whether Google is making us stupid. More recently, he suggested that including hyperlinks in text distracts more than it edifies. I assume that everyone reading this interview is a frequent user of Google and an even more frequent consumer of hyperlinks. Is there anything to these concerns? If so can we do anything about them, or are we worrying about changes that are beyond our control?
Complaining about links in digital text is like complaining about the absence of them in printed books. Hypertext is for hyperlinks, in some fundamental sense, so when we're reading online we do well to embrace its many benefits. And as one of my commenters on Text Patterns noted the other day, most of us have gotten pretty good at knowing when a link is worth clicking on and when it may safely be ignored.
That said, Nick Carr is absolutely right that online life changes how we read and how we think: neuro-plasticity guarantees that, as he explains in his new book The Shallows. And when he writes that he "misses his old brain," I resonate totally -- but, you know, we can get that old brain back. As I just commented, my Kindle helped me to do that. Peter Norvig of Google has said, "When the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist." This is absolutely right, but if they are going to co-exist, we're going to have to make sure that we're consistently exercising cognitive strategies appropriate to both skimming and concentrating. It's not easy, but it's eminently possible; it just requires some discipline.
Q. Speaking of Google, you recently attempted to wean yourself from their Web services. Why try to quit well-designed products offered for free? Has your divestment been successful? Has the experience informed what Web tools you'll choose to begin using in the future?
Ack, don't ask me about this. I've come to think that I may be too accustomed to the superb organizational features of Gmail to go back to any other email client. I fear I have been reeled back in to the maw of the Googleplex.
I tried to ditch Google because, in the aftermath of the Google Buzz fiasco, I decided I couldn't trust them with my data. But I really do think they have made some good adjustments to their users' privacy controls -- much better than the ones Facebook has implemented. But I laughed uneasily when one of my commenters wrote, "So did Google have to pay Mark Zuckerberg to implement a bunch of over-the-top abuses of their users' privacy so that Google looks benign in comparison? Or did he do it for free?"
Q. I've been focusing on the downsides of technology. Tell me about your favorite tools on the Web, and how you've used them to organize your online life.
I wrote a blog post about this recently, so rather than answer in a lot of detail, I'll just link to it. I try to keep things simple, to work with standard formats, and to make sure that all of my information is easily transferable or exportable. I hate having a lot of unnecessary paper around, and never print anything out unless I absolutely have to, but I tend to be uncomfortable with storing my information in databases. That's why I don't use Zotero, even though I think it's a brilliant tool. When you keep a ton of information in a single database, and that database gets corrupted . . . yikes. I strive to use plain text (including HTML) whenever possible.
Q. If you could commission a tool that doesn't now exist to complement what you already use what would it be?
I could think about that one for a long time! -- but I believe what I would most benefit from is this: better file-type conversion. Like most of us, I have files on my computer of many different kinds. Just among my text-based documents I have plain text files, MS Word files, RTF documents, PDFs, HTML files. . . . I can convert almost any of these to almost any other, but rarely without something getting lost or screwed up. (It's odd, to me, that image conversion -- from JPEG to PNG or whatever -- seems to go much smoother. But maybe if I were a photographer I wouldn't say that.) I don't even want to think about how many hours of my life I have wasted trying to fix formatting in text that I have either converted from one format to another or just pasted in to a document.
Q. The writing you produce for public consumption is quite varied in its length -- you're working on another book, you write lengthy essays and book reviews, your blog posts tend to be of average length, and you're on Twitter regularly. How do you decide at what length an idea is best expressed? Does writing in any of these formats enhance or detract from what you produce in another?
Ask me again in ten years, but right now I feel that I've found a pretty good balance. During the school year I wasn't able to get a great deal done on this book, but since the end of the spring semester I have devoted myself full-time to it, and am pleasantly surprised at how quickly and fluently I have been able to write. Why? Because, I think, I have been pursuing most of the book's main ideas on my blog for the past year. I've been trying out ideas, getting responses to them, re-thinking them -- and all that time spent thinking is paying off now that I'm in the midst of writing. I am moving with a surer step than I expected to manage.
Of course, when I turn the manuscript in my editor, Cynthia Read, may say, "What a crappy book -- this reads like a bunch of blog posts." But right now I feel good.
Similarly, I might make a comment on Twitter that, on reflection, I decide deserves some expansion, so it becomes a blog post. And blog posts can be springboards for essays. It all starts with Twitter, man. Twitter rulz.
Q. In a recent blog entry, you wrote, "Whenever I teach a class in which I assign poetry, I require students to memorize fifty lines and recite them to me. It's the most valuable assignment I use, and I would probably do better to throw out much of the writing I assign and just do more memorization." Why?
I have noticed that when my students write papers about poems they have memorized, those paper tend to be significantly better than others -- much more attentive to relevant details, much more likely to note a subtle effect. To memorize a poem is often to internalize its structure, to grasp intuitively how it works.
I want my students to say the poems aloud, not just to write them down, so that they can catch something of the sounds, the cadences. Of course, many of them don't really know how to recite a poem effectively, and that's fine: I tell them that there are no style points awarded or withheld -- they just need to navigate their way from the first line to the last as best they can. I have them come to my office so it's not a public performance, and I turn my chair a bit so I'm not looking right at them, and therefore making them more nervous, as they speak.
A few years ago a quiet young woman came to my office and said she wanted to recite the last fifty lines of Auden's great poem "In Praise of Limestone," and my heart sank a little. The lines are long, there's no rhyme and no regularly accented meter; it's the kind of poem that's really hard to memorize, and I expected her to stumble through it at best. Indeed, she had some trouble with the first few lines -- but then she found her voice, she lost her self-consciousness, she was able to let the poem speak through her. From the way she spoke the lines it was utterly obvious that she got them, she understood this immensely complex poem. She knew it "by heart" in the truest sense of that old phrase. When she was done I turned to congratulate her and was surprised to see that, though her voice had never wavered, tears were rolling down her face.
And that's why I ask students to memorize and recite poems.
Q. You'll often hear jaded political observers lamenting sound-byte culture. The idea is that it is impossible to say anything of substance in the 15 second clip that plays on the television news, therefore broadcast media contributes to the degradation of public discourse. What I am wondering is whether the blog post format has analogous drawbacks. After all, its now the most common way we now grapple with all sorts of ideas on the Internet. Are there drawbacks? And would you include your reservations about threaded comment sections as a viable place for productive conversations?
This too is something I wrote about a few years ago and I really haven't changed my mind. Blogs are great in so many ways, but if we want them to be vehicles for the serious exploration of ideas, they're going to have to get a new architecture. We need some kind of super-powered Intellectual Blog Technology that (a) organizes posts not by date (New! New! New!) but by the depth of the conversations they have generated, and (b) rewards substantive contributions and marginalizes trolling. The legendary Slashdot "karma" model is pretty good at the latter but hasn't been widely implemented, perhaps because it requires a great deal more coding, perhaps because no one gives a rip.
I should also admit that I have never been able to figure out an appropriate way to deal with hostile blog commenters. For one thing, I am a Christian and so have an obligation to treat people with respect even when they don't treat me with respect. I find this difficult. Also, I struggle to distinguish between commenters who are hostile but genuinely engaged -- and with whom one can therefore have a useful debate -- and those who are just trolling. Some bloggers don't seem to worry about these things at all. I do.
Q. Having dazzled readers with your insights, I am sure some will want to read more of what you've written. Would you do us the favor of shamelessly teasing some of your books/articles/essays/blog posts?
Har. You can find a list of my published books and my essays and articles (the ones available online, anyway, or most of them) here. I haven't sold nearly enough copies of my best book, Original Sin: a Cultural History, so if anyone wants to remedy that situation I wold be most grateful. I have a collection of more-or-less theological essays coming out quite soon called Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant. The book on reading and my critical edition of Auden's poem The Age of Anxiety -- completed but still in production at Princeton University Press -- don't have Amazon pages yet and therefore don't exist. But they will; they will.