Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reading and the Cult of Efficiency

The operative paragraph in Charles Simic’s post to NYRBlog yesterday, “A Country Without Libraries,” is the penultimate one:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

Most important is that it shows the extent to which “some politician” has lost touch with his/her responsibilities as a representative of the electorate, regardless of whether that individual is speaking for the TEA Party, for so-called “moderate” Republicans, or for Democrats.  Now that the sorry state of the country’s economy seems to top everyone’s list of priorities, it is time to recognize that politicians use it only as agency for increasing their power bases;  and the needs of the electorate be damned.

Well, that last sentence may be a bit extreme.  However, it is not so extreme to assert that you can get your voters to approve of any of your ideas as long as you market them the right way.  When it comes to ideas about the economy, politicians all seem to think that the best marketing pitch has to do with catch terms like “productivity” and “efficiency,” which are promoted for their direct causal link to “economic growth.”  Who benefits from any of this jargon and how is a secondary matter, but the jargon explains why the political attitude towards a public service like a free lending library has turned out so wrongheaded.

The crux of Simic’s paragraph is that reading has nothing to do with “productivity” and “efficiency.”  To the contrary, it is “slow, time-consuming, and often tedious,” ostensibly a waste of time when one can just do a Google search.  The corollary of this corrupted view of reading is yet another instance of the more general problem of “loss of meaning,” through which politicians and economists can talk about recovery with total disregard to the impact of that talk on the general population.  This is not to say that life should be all about time-consuming tedium;  but it is to say that a knowledgeable life is not all about the efficiency of Google searches.  On the other hand politicians, economists, and (most importantly) those they really serve among the rich and mighty see little gain in a knowledgeable life for the rest of the public.  In other words the attack on public libraries is just another salvo in the War Against the Poor;  and, in the context of that war, it is not in the best interest of those with the power of wealth to endow those who would rebel with the power of knowledge.

1 comment:

DigitalDan said...

Can't say I agree with this at all. Online reading certainly expands the range of options (while contracting some too no doubt), but eliminating none. I claim to be more comfortable reading online than many of my contemporaries. It would be only fair to test these contentions only among members of the subject cohort (today's students), to see whether their high comfort level with the medium affects the range of tasks they can achieve.

Further, it's a new medium, with a ways to go before its full capabilities can be determined.

Of course, the same range of materials have to be available to the online reader before you can make much of any determination. That situation is also still in flux.