footloose

March 27, 2011 § 15 Comments

when i began to read, i read because it was fun and because i seem to have been expected to.

i was a smug little people-pleasing child, and if more reading meant that more people would coo admiringly at my nascent nerdiness, then i would read. eventually reading became its own motivation, largely because my parents chose never to interfere with what i read or why i was reading it, and this was an oasis of surprise in my much-interfered-with life. there was no question of vetting books for ‘age-appropriate’-ness or whatever the hell this generation of parents is obsessing over, so i wholeheartedly canonballed into territory my parents – to paraphrase – feared to tread. one seizes at what freedom one may have. mine happened to be reading.

when i grew older and asked why reading was so earthshakingly important, i was told ‘knowledge is power’; this is one of those things it seems irreligious to disagree with, although the way the cliche originally meant to be read, and the way it has currently expanded to fill a universe of generalisation, may be two very subtly different things. knowledge is unquestionably power in a specific, current situation of conflict where any relevant information may gain the possessor an advantage; yet, that knowledge needs to have been gained prior to the moment of conflict. since the occurrence and exact nature of conflict is not predictable, it seems almost tautological to suggest that the amassing of information is in general a good thing.

i read fiction, non fiction, academic literature, comics, gossip websites, personal blogs, political opinions, celebrity gossip websites and political opinions on the same day. but i do it less because i think it’s a good thing and more because it’s become a habit. it is, with the internet, a habit that is criminally easy to feed. i suspect the ‘goodness’ of reading (in my mind) is less virtue, more habit, less rational, more rationalisation of a compulsion.

in the sign of four, i remember, sherlock holmes told (see here) an incredulous watson that the skilful workman should reserve his brainpower to retain only information that is exactly relevant to his life. to my thirteen year old self, that was blasphemy. i was shocked and i deeply disapproved… i mean just look at it: it is the most provincial sounding thing one can say. today i’m not so sure he was wrong.

in the obsession with information, i think i, and perhaps we, have overlooked  the power of technique, and the fantastic plasticity of resourcefulness, the ability to creatively jump the distance between that which is known and that which is required to be known in a given situation. both in law school and in life outside it, i’ve begun to realise that the ability to resolve crises is grounded less in exactly how much one knows than in the power to transcend that limitation with practice and presence of mind. the ability to really think may be a lost art… in any case, i think i may be losing it.

always operating on a surplus of facts and opinions has the ability to create a complacence that is simply misleading, especially when i have no clear idea as to their provenance, veracity or quality. equally importantly, it physically tires me out. i’ve never been a hoarder otherwise, so i’m going to experimentally quit being one now; experimentally because curiosity about the world can’t be a bad thing either, and hacking it away makes me a little uncomfortable.

perhaps i am stupendously wrong, but what do we know until we try? and so –

into the wild. :)

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§ 15 Responses to footloose

  • F.S says:

    Sweet.Sweet.Sweet.

    Also, in addition to provenance, veracity and quality , there’s context. Being stupendously wrong is a bit ambitious. It’ll be niggling fuckuppery. But it’ll either plateau out or nosedive from there. Relax. Go for it.

  • Sroyon says:

    Sorry, terrible error with the HTML tag. I shall be grateful if you delete the above comment (if it be within your power).

    What I meant to say is:

    I read this article last year and it made me slightly anxious. Ironically, I read it on the internets.

  • haven’t you heard? this is my personal fiefdom. my power is frightening and without limit.

    oh i read that article too! funnily at the time i dismissed it as one of those manufactured-panic things. i don’t find it ‘frightening’ now exactly, since the article does mention that our brains evolve to our habits, so no change is permanent; however – the internet’s supposed ability to ‘superficialise’ all information-gathering exactly matches my natural tendency to do the same. so this is probably worse for people like me, than for people who have excellent attention-spans to fall back on.

  • Karthik Sivaramakrishnan says:

    The problem with that Holmesian theory is that one often does not know precisely what is relevant information, and what isn’t, except on hindsight. Fear of overclutter is silly considering quasi-facts like only 2% of our brain is used. Whether that number is accurate or not, and whether that pertains to thought or memory, it suggests the idea that we are quite far from full utilization of either, and certainly not in imminent danger of overcrowding at the ripe young age of 20-something. Also, memory doesn’t work by displacement, which would justify a fear of forgetting from overload, but by concatenation, so the more one knows, the more chances of a meaningful concatenation of trivia, and the better the chance of recall through that chain of facts. It is precisely because of the assurance of concatenation that when I’m trying to recall what article 380 of the constitution states, I don’t remember the fact that Aishwarya Rai wore a white dress to Cannes.

    As for Nicholas Carr, and his wild fears, what he has failed to realise is that the constant jumping across hyperlinks (say on a wiki page for instance) is not because we are in search of superficial information, but because we are making sure that every word we read is understood, i.e, each word in the sentence must actually link to the word preceding and succeeding it so that the sentence as a whole is one solid link for recall. If, on the other hand, a word in a sentence made no sense, that would be akin to a broken link, or a weak link, and the recall of that sentence breaks down. For instance, if I read the sentence, “since the occurrence and exact nature of conflict is not predictable, it seems almost tautological to suggest that the amassing of information is in general a good thing.” and didn’t know what tautological meant, but decided not to look it up, then I’d have read the sentence, “since the occurrence and exact nature of conflict is not predictable, it seems almost something to suggest that the amassing of information is in general a good thing.” The former sentence is certainly easier for me to recall at a future point in time. While that answers the question of reading wiki hyperlinks, it still doesn’t quell the fear of reading Nature alongside the National Enquirer. As for that, I can only say each person has their own balance of how much serious information they can consume all in one shot. For some it may be a few hours’ worth, for others, a few minutes. And even before internet, there have been people who read several books simultaneously, with a weighty tome on the history of the russian revolution being read alongside, say, a novel by PG Wodehouse. Not only that, many books, right from the renaissance, actually used to be full of annotations, and sidenotes, often not entirely pertaining to the subject matter at hand, but meant to be of general interest to the reader. So each one can strike their own equilibrium on the matter. The other point Carr misses out on, and this is an important one, is that people have 50 tabs open in no time precisely because the information we most desire, is made available to us today faster than it ever has been in the past,with revolutionarily accurate internet search, so unlike in the past when I may have read a 500 page book on the history of India only to find out at the end that it spoke almost entirely about Nehru and nothing else, I can now get on google, read reviews on Amazon, cross-check on goodreads, and triple check from somewhere else to make sure that the book is at least a reasonably objective and broad account of the history of the whole of India and not just Nehru. So, I think all of Carr’s arguments can be shredded without much effort in a similar vein. Also, don’t get carried away by all those ‘studies he cites. Try searching the journals for the opposite set of studies and you’ll find an equal number. Statistics based studies are pseudo-scientific, and it is general good to keep in mind the tongue-in-cheek but not entirely inaccurate maxim ‘All statistics are lies, but not all lies are statistics’ while going through those studies.

    The only real danger is to read too much without scrutiny, in which case one is merely parroting borrowed ideas and opinions, and that can lead to a loss of the ability to think. But the more information one parses critically, the more likely one is to improve one’s thinking, parsing abilities, both of which are essential to that pursuit of ‘the right information’.

    I rest my case. (for now :p)

    • …wow. brevity is clearly not the soul of your wit.

      anyway, you’ll find i’ve admitted that it is difficult to restrict information beforehand because conflicts are unexpected. i’ve also focused not on potential memory loss but on physical exhaustion as my motivating factor in deciding to cut off what i consider unnecessary stimuli.

      it is the very act of reading a long book and not having the luxury of Ctrl+F-ing through it that develops patience and possibly attention-spans, neither of which is necessary online. my habit of expecting quick gratification when a question occurs to me, has affected my ability to retain interest in long or complex articles or books which require a rested, patient mind. i suspect this is the same for many people.

      i am not bemoaning a bad memory, i am questioning the wisdom of expending mindspace on static facts rather than on the dynamic ability to bridge the spaces between them. no matter how much we know, we will never know enough, and i have said that i believe that resourcefulness is the only answer.

      i did not say i was overworking my brain, so your 2% quasi-fact is irrelevant. i did hint however hint at ‘clutter’ with my holmes-fact, and clutter has nothing to do with space, it has everything to do with organisation. i find myself unable to organise this much information as i find myself incapable of prioritising it, as i do not know the veracity or relevance of much of it. it is clutter that i object to.

      there is much else to say, but comments aren’t meant to be blogpost-length, as i am sure you will keep in mind the next time you have thoughts on an issue.

      • Karthik says:

        Ah, looks like I’ve misunderstood your post considerably? Brevity has its virtues, but ambiguity is its cousin. In any case, I’ll reserve my thoughts for the proper forum.

  • F.S says:

    In the words of Madame Tussad’s finest replica : “Isshhhhh”.

  • neo says:

    The “information diet” you’re embarking on has worked so well for me, I’m tempted to take it to the next level: limiting my social interactions. No more housing bubble happy birthday china sucks world cup school admissions creepy boss awesome party good night junk in my brain.

    I wrote a long email about this to my wife. She probably disagrees; I’ll know when I check my email in a few days.

    -n

  • soin says:

    so you are a product of the books that you choose to read? thats sort of recursive la? like manjeet singh having some problems from r d sharma.free

  • My naina’s take on reading is as follows : “Kandadhum thindravan gundan aavaan. Kandadhum padithavan pandithan aavan.”

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