Friday, June 04, 2010

Can Technology Let Us Return To The Childhood Joy Of Reading?

For learning to write criticism, Anthony Lewis makes for a very good role model, with his most recent piece in the New York review A Supreme Difference an excellent example. In that essay Lewis reviews two books, one a biography of current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the other a portrayal of outgoing Justice John Paul Stevens. Lewis, a liberal icon when he was a columnist for the New York Times, would seem to have a strong prior disposition against Scalia, who is noted as a strict conservative. How can Lewis render a fair verdict on Scalia, when their views on issues across the board are so distinct and everyone who reads this piece knows that to be the case? Lewis finds a way.

Lewis criticizes Scalia but also praises him for his prescience.

But Scalia remains the most interesting of the conservatives, the most provocative. He does not hesitate to be sarcastic, even contemptuous, about his colleagues when he disagrees with them. When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disappointed him in 1989 by not providing the fifth vote to overrule the abortion decision Roe v. Wade, he wrote in dissent that her rationale "cannot be taken seriously."

When, a few months earlier, the Court upheld the post-Watergate statute allowing the appointment of independent counsels to investigate executive branch wrongdoing, Scalia was the lone dissenter. He saw the law as an infringement on the president's power to control the executive and said that it created a new branch of government, "a sort of junior-varsity Congress." His language seemed shrill, but Kenneth Starr's out-of-control impeachment investigation of President Clinton a decade later proved Scalia's doubts prophetic.

Lewis also covers Scalia strong points – his high intelligence, his charm with fellow judges outside the workings of the Court, even those with whom he disagrees vehemently, and his capability to make literary references as allusions to a high minded ethical view of the world while using that as a way to contrast with his own sense of the work of the lawyer, who must deal with the nitty-gritty and frequently ugly side of human interaction. Lewis does this for balance and fullness. The emphasis of Scalia's strong points also helps Lewis pose a puzzle. How can somebody with these strengths nevertheless remain an unrepentant ideologue, an adherent of Original Intent? Lewis implicitly argues that this adherence to ideology served to block an evolution of Scalia's views based on his experiences on the Court.

Having made these points, Lewis then continues with a critique of Scalia but only in contrast, by glowing about Stevens, a Ford appointee. (Scalia was a Reagan appointee.) Stevens is essentially non-ideological and hence inherently it has been much harder to see how Stevens would decide any one particular case. Stevens' core judicial precept seems to be a strong distrust of the concentration of power. His apparent movement to the left as he has gotten older is explained by Lewis as resistance to the power of the Court itself, and the apparent willingness of the right wing Justices (not just Scalia, indeed mainly Chief Justice Roberts) to pursue an aggressive political agenda. In Stevens, Lewis sees a Justice whose point of view has evolved and grown. Thus, while there are only two of the Justices really considered in this piece, Lewis makes the case that such evolution in view is fitting and natural. In praise of Stevens, Lewis raises his sternest criticism of Scalia.

While I'm no fan of original intent and balk at many of the conservative positions – The ruling that blocked the ban on political spending by corporations being the latest example – I wonder if Lewis is too harsh on Scalia. I have now finished all but the Diaries section of Between the Devil and the Dragon and have read the start of the Diaries as well. Hoffer was a philosopher with street smarts and lots of experiential knowledge of the ordinary man. I thought much of the book profound and would make for a great reading for anyone, but especially for college students. Yet at the start of the Diaries section Hoffer explains that he began the Diaries because he felt he was turning into a dullard and he was looking for a way to rekindle his imagination and get his juices flowing. Hoffer's idea was to write each day and thereby capture his fleeting thoughts, enabling the good ones to flourish.

This sense that as we mature we tend to become dull seems quite realistic to me, as I've been feeling the same sort of thing for quite a while. I wonder if most thoughtful minds experience a similar sensation, when caught in midstream between youth and senility. Adherence to ideology may then be a way to ensure intellectual productivity, once trust in personal creativity no longer seems warranted. If this is true then Stevens is indeed to be much admired, but then too he plays the role of exception. Further, as life expectancy continues to rise, it makes one wonder that much more about the wisdom of giving Justices unlimited terms.

What of the rest of us, who had no instinct to find ideology when we were younger and who likely would find an embrace of ideology in middle age too alien to seem a realistic possibility? Is there another alternative? For me, the "cure" seems to be an increased nostalgia and a redirection of efforts to discover again the intellectual joys of childhood, among which reading was paramount. I wonder if many of us would benefit from openly recalling our initial experiences with reading on without a parent present. Here are mine in a nutshell.

The basement was my place for reading. We had an overstuffed chair there that needed to be reupholstered. It was comfortable and sitting in it provided a sense of being securely encased. That sensation seems very important to me. This sort of reading is done away from others, not so much to keep them out but rather to keep me from entering their worlds. Snug as a bug lets the reader enter the world of the book unencumbered. My first experience this way must have been Charlotte's Web followed by Stuart Little. From there, my reading took flight. I probably did a fair amount of reading in the bedroom too. It was the natural activity before going to sleep. But I shared the bedroom with my brother. The little alcove I made for myself in the basement was mine alone.

The notion that reading is not just a solitary activity but that it is also an insulated one makes for an interesting dilemma. How, with the heightened interconnectivity in which we now live, do we create this sense of isolation? Posed this way the Nicholas Carr piece, Is Google Making Us Stupid, can be seen as an argument that we can't or that it is very hard to do, at least for those of us who are not luddites. But I think that Carr's argument is not quite right. There is technology that greatly assists with providing the requisite insulation. That technology is the earphone.

Music, particularly familiar music that now serves to comfort us rather than challenge us, provides a very good cocoon. I'm not talking about the music you occasionally hear blaring out of a car window, with the driver either oblivious to the impression he is making or, on the contrary, wanting to draw attention to himself, the raucous noise his form of self-expression. Instead I mean music of our own choice that while we might go to hear it performed live, in which case it will demand our complete attention, can also provide pleasure though listened to in a much more autonomous manner, where our focus is elsewhere, namely on our reading. It was this idea that motivated me to make a mockumentary (my first) called Kindle-iPod: Duel or Duet, a poor man's version of a Michael Wesch video. Alas, mine never came close to going viral, although it did serve to mark some earlier thinking about the ideas in this post, and in the process of making the video I learned enough that I could have students do something similar as class projects.

There is, however, a conceptual problem with the vision I articulated in that video. The duet quite likely will turn into a trio, with the various instruments not playing nice with each other. Unless you leave the smartphone behind, it has a tendency to take over, making for an unhappy trinity. This is why that on my PC at home, where I have the Kindle reader installed and iTunes too, I can't really achieve an immersive reading experience, once in a while perhaps, but not on a consistent basis. For this reason, the Kindle is most valuable to me when my Blackberry is out of sight. Not being a very disciplined sort of fellow, I let my compulsion to check email override the desire to get lost in the reading. In order to go back to childhood, I have to get past the consequences of that compulsion.

This is where I was till about 3 weeks ago, when I got my iPad. I've been testing it out and trying to get acclimated to it and I believe now I have enough experience with it to give my assessment. However, I'd like to avoid being redundant and just yesterday I read this review of the iPad by Sue Halpern. So here I'll content myself with discussing things she either glosses over or omits entirely.

Much of what I want to read these days are essays, those found mainly in the better magazines, though the Internet being what it is, interesting stuff can show up anywhere. A good bit of this is freely available stuff, and the browser therefore becomes the right tool as a reader. On that score Safari is reasonably good and especially that a quick double tap on the screen enlarges the font so even someone with bifocals like me can enjoy the reading experience. Scrolling is just as good as turning a page, maybe even better, and using your fingers to scroll is fun. It is visually appealing the way the iPad has done this where the text decelerates after the scrolling motion has been completed. I've been reading more magazine pieces online since I've gotten the iPad perhaps for this very reason.

There is the flip slide issue of this from the publisher's perspective. At the moment, though I'm not sure why, magazines that one can subscribe to on the Kindle cannot be exported to Kindle readers on other devices, such as the iPad. It is unclear to me whether that is an Amazon thing, a Publisher thing, or a mixture between the two. Some publishers will develop iPad specific apps. Currently the New York Times has a couple of those, though I would say they are wimpy. I can get the full paper through the browser, so why would I use the app? And with the fixed cost of developing such an app and the business risk that another platform (say by Google) might soon be the preferred vehicle and the development might not transfer at all to the next environment, wouldn't it be more prudent, especially for smaller publishers, to simply publish on the Web?

Once the browser is viewed as a legit candidate as a reader, the iPad starts to look quite different from the Kindle. When not downloading something from the Amazon store, I would turn off the network connectivity for the Kindle to increase the time between recharges. In contrast, the iPad is meant to be always connected. It is a network device, not just a reader. It is very slick in how it handles connectivity but as a consequence there is the very real issue of how long it will go without having to recharge it. This is the main area where the iPad is distinct from a laptop (and I believe what is driving the debate about Flash video). The iPad can go more than twice as long as a laptop between recharging. It's good for a full day of use. This is how it is most like a phone. And it is therefore intriguing whether it can be the sole portable device, with Skype perhaps in lieu of the phone.

Let me return to the question of whether the urge to check email interferes with immersion. It does, but so what? If you have the iPad with you sometimes you'll use it as a reader, other times as a phone. You'll do more reading that way, at least that's been my experience so far. So, I mostly like it a lot.

There can be a frustration with it however, especially if you think of it as a laptop substitute. One does other things with browsers than to use them as readers. The iPad version of Safari doesn't do pop-up windows. It doesn't do Java (which has gotten essentially no press while the Flash conflict has gotten a ton of press). So there are a bunch of apps that are off limits. And it doesn't do tabbed browsing either. The history function is not bad, but I'd still prefer to have several browser windows opened at once. There is also that as a voice input device (there is a decent microphone) it's non-trivial to get the audio elsewhere for re-use. I have to get it to my PC and then process it there before I can upload it for podcast. So as a production device, it is a bit clunky.

Here is one last point on the iPad as a reader. For the last year or two I've found myself at the end of the day preferring to watch TV than to read. My eyes get tired and for the most part there is less mental effort from watching the tube. So far I've watched only one TV show on the iPad. I downloaded the very first episode of 24, which was freely available in iTunes. The viewing experience was quite excellent. I downloaded it direct and it took quite a while to download. Also, I don't yet have the urge to use the iPad as a TV substitute. But that day may be coming soon. Reading may seem to be making a rebound with the big boost in demand for eReaders. But I'd be cautious on that one. Secretly many of us readers are also TV junkies. So if there is a new series that is as good as West Wing, watch out. Childhood was a great place for learning and personal growth. Yet there was also I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island. Sometimes one can be too nostalgic.

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