Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

02 MARCH, 2012

David Foster Wallace on Art vs. TV and the Motivation to be Smart

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“…what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart.”

In early 1996, journalist David Lipsky accompanied 34-year-old David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his tour for his breakout novel, Infinite Jest for an ambitious Rolling Stone interview. The feature was never published, but in 2010, some 14 years after the road trip and two years after Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky released the transcript in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Among the many thoughtful, revealing conversations is this remarkably sharp insight by Wallace on the TV vs. the arts, the capacity for intellectual stimulation, and the challenge of creating the motivation for it in the first place:

You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need… is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we’re smart. And that’s the stuff that TV and movies — although they’re great at certain things — cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art… Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

Clay Shirky, of course, has written a great deal about the enormous intellectual and creative resources that are being opened up as we shift away from TV in Cognitive Surplus. But Wallace’s point about motivations resonates particularly deeply with me as I consider my role — and Brain Pickings’ highest aspiration — to motivate people to be interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in until they are.

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01 MARCH, 2012

“In March, Read the Books You’ve Always Meant to Read”: Gorgeous Vintage PSA Posters, 1939-1941

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Dickens, Dumas, Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot, Clemens, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Scott.

In 1935, in an effort to elevate the nation from the grip of The Great Depression, President Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration — a New Deal agency enlisting millions of ordinary citizens and unskilled workers in carrying out public space and service projects as diverse as art murals, road work, and building construction. With a government investment of nearly $7 billion, the WPA provided some 8 million jobs and soon became the largest employer in the country, in the process producing a wealth of public service announcement posters — a treasure trove of mid-century design.

Among the WPA’s design output were a number of gorgeous vintage posters for various literacy projects:

'In March read the books you've always meant to read'

March 25, 1941, WPA Art Project Chicago

'The vacation reading club - join now at your public library'

March 25, 1939, WPA Iowa Project

'A book mark would be better!'

Dated between 1936 and 1940, WPA Art Project Chicago

So, in March, what are you reading? A good place to start:

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01 MARCH, 2012

Memory Is Not a Recording Device: How Technology Shaped Our Metaphors for Remembering

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Debunking the myth that memory is about “reliving” a permanent record stored in a filing cabinet.

Last year, Joshua Foer set out to hack his memory. Last week, Jonah Lehrer examined the promise and peril of memory erasure. But what, exactly, is memory — and how does it work? A new book by Alison Winter tackles precisely that — Memory: Fragments of a Modern History explores how the science and understanding of memory evolved over the past century, from early metaphors that likened it to a filing cabinet to the quasi-science of the prewar era’s “truth serums” to the psychology of false confessions and the latest neuroscience breakthroughs on how remembering works.

One particularly fascinating aspect Winter examines is the entwining of technology, media, and cultural accounts of memory. The book, Winter points out, “may tell us as much about how to approach the history of information media as as it does about human memory.”

The modern sciences of memory emerged when newly developed sciences of mind coincided with the proliferation of new media: technologies for recording, transmitting, and recreating sounds and images. Photography, the phonograph, and the moving image all developed between 1850 and 1900. They became identified with memory process in a series of associations that shaped both how those processes were understood and how the technologies themselves would be used. Throughout the twentieth century, memory researchers continued to look to the most recent, cutting-edge recording technologies for insights into the nature of remembering.

[…]

There was never just one way to use recording technologies to think about memory. At one extreme, researchers suggested that they were models for memory itself. Perhaps, they reflected, memory was an internal recording that could be replayed at will… But on the other extreme, researchers also used recording devices to define precisely what memory was not. For a number of scientists, the idea that memory is a recording device rests on an unrealistic fantasy of accuracy and permanence. Instead of practices that facilitated ‘reliving’ a permanent record, they sought out ways to reveal an ineradicable role of interpretation… in the construction of knowledge and memory.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of knowledge in the age of Information Overload, and “memory” has always been a centerpiece of “knowledge.” But at a time when the rift between accessibility and access to information is gaping wider than ever, memory as a foundation for knowledge is shifting from retentional to relational, elevating the importance of the ability to retrieve and connect information over that of the ability to retain it.

As we move from storing units of data — books, music, images, footage — to saving pathways to and among them, our frameworks for thoughtful interpretation, which include the curation and contextualization of information, will become of crucial importance.

Winter, of course, goes in much more depth in Memory — well worth a read.

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