Friday, August 29, 2008

Books versus Google: Comment on Nicholas Carr's article

Nicholas Carr wrote a thoughtful but highly provocative article for the Atlantic, entitled Is Google Making us Stupid? As you might guess, his thesis is that surfing, and twittering, and Googling distract us from the serious business of book-reading and reduce our ability to think deeply.

There have been many subsequent blogs on the subject. Most of them criticize Carr as a sort of information Luddite who can't appreciate that the role of Google is to replace the near-defunct book.

Personally, I love Google and other web innovations. I assume that most of the readers of this blog feel the same way.

I also love books. I would say that my love of books has had two peaks. The first occurred when I was in high school and college. I devoured books back then, reading mostly science fiction books (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Simak, Lem) plus lots of popular science books (Gamow, Eddington, Asimov (again), Clarke (again), Ley).

Then I went through a long period of life where I continued to read books, but never with the enthusiasm that I had when I was younger.

Today, in my late 50s, I've resumed my book reading with a passion. I read mystery novels, science books in many different fields, short stories, horror novels, biographies.... lots of different genres.

I've found that I can often (maybe always) identify another book lover within a few minutes of meeting them. Book lovers tend to think more deeply about subjects than other people. They can articulate opposing ways of thinking about a controversial issue. They attribute other sources of opinion (less absorbed with their own ideas, more willing to give credit to others). They are interested in many different things, and they don't mind exploring a subject with another person, for an extended time. They listen to other people.

I really like people who love books.

What is so special about books? A good book always tells a story and connects the reader to the narrative voice of the author. A well written book is about as close to a Vulcan mind meld as anything we have. If you really get into the book, it re-organizes our neural connections (as per Wolf in the Carr article) and builds relationships among different disciplines, helping us develop new hypotheses and helping us solve previously intractable problems (often by shifting the problem domain).

When people prophesy the demise of books, they are often thinking about written compilations of things (such as large textbooks); not narrative literature. Many textbooks are simply assemblages of topics written by committees of authors. In medicine, a fast-moving field, textbooks contain out-dated information the moment they're published. Textbooks can be replaced by e-books that can be easily updated. In many cases, a textbook can be replaced by a well-designed table of contents, with links to resources for each topic and sub-topic.

But narrative books are different from textbooks. A great book, even a science book, provides an intimate connection between the reader and the author. Most of the greatest informatics innovations involve human connections (cell phones, texting, twitter, facebook, blogs, role-playing games, and so on). Books are best appreciated when you think of them as a device that connects a reader to the narrative voice of the author through the medium of a story.

Readers, please send your thoughts on this subject.

- © 2008 Jules Berman

key words: book publishing, ebook, electronic publishing, textbook, multi-author volume, writing, reading, scientific discipline
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.