Posts Tagged ‘usefulness’

I have been reading a terrifying book lately, called ‘The Shallows’, about how the Internet is changing the format of our brains and how we process information. The book reasons that the Internet sprays us with little bits of information which we browse lightly, rather than committing to the sort of “deep reading’ that allows us to follow an argument, that is, the kind of brain we have had since reading and writing were invented.

This book follows swift on the heels of an article I read in The Guardian recently about how e-readers allow a huge number of multimedia features to be incorporated into a book. For example, the e-reader version of ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel includes a discussion between the author and Dr. David Starkey, as well as useful illustrative links and so on. However, ‘The Shallows’ argues that these little gems detract from our focus as we read. I know I’d be on edge if I was looking for Easter eggs and hyperlinks as well as following a complex story line.

I was skeptical about e-readers, I’ll admit it. I thought they’d die the death of the 8-Track and Betamax, truth be told. I can see their advantage if you go travelling and don’t want to bring an entire library with you, but their appeal ended there, for me. I love the heft of a book in my hand, the ability to fold down page corners, the fact that I can (and do) drop it in the bath without worrying about the loss of my entire library. Reading this book, however, has persuaded me never to use an e-reader. The human brain, with its ability to focus deeply on a task (especially when that task is a book), is a triumph of evolution/design/both. Anything that distances my brain from the brain of the ancients is, in my opinion, a bad thing. 

Originally, literary works were written on scrolls, which were a bit cumbersome and hard to use. Wax tablets were used for day-to-day writing, since parchment was expensive. To accommodate longer notes, groups of wax tablets were tied together, making a rather thick book-like object. Early in the Christian Era, some bright spark decided to do the same thing to parchment, and in doing so invented what we call the codex, the book’s most recognizable precursor. From there we move on to monasteries, Gutenberg and other aspects of printing and publishing history, but that’s another story for another blog. It may be that the e-reader is just the next step in books and book-making. However, I feel like I don’t have the same deep engagement with the very substance of the page when I’m holding an e-reader. This might just be the novelty of the device, but reading a book in electronic format leaves me feeling disconnected from the page and ink substance of a real book, the page and ink substance with which the book was originally written. This may not be true of many modern authors, who mostly type their works, but I feel very far from ancient authors, who wrote on parchment, wax, or the versatile substance of their own minds. I feel as though I’m cheating by reading Homer in English, let alone in English on an e-reader.

An e-reader also changes my own reception of a work. When I read electronic type, it’s usually because I am looking for some sort of information- where we’re meeting tomorrow night, a bibliographical reference, the news, the opening times of a shop. Reading an e-book makes me feel like I’m strip-mining the book for information, rather than enjoying a story or speech or history. E-readers are efficient, I suppose, but efficiency isn’t the point. I don’t read just to gain information- I read to read! This ties in with the whole “art for art’s sake” feeling I have about Classics and life in general.

So, Cicero, Homer, and the others- I promise you that I will stay close to you and your bookish, codex-y, waxy roots, and far away from e-readers.

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A quick post before bed.

I have discovered a few things since graduation:

1. My sleeping timetable is completely broken. Everyone in my house is asleep, but here I am, reading CakeWrecks and playing FreeCell. Good times.
2. The Bay of Naples is beautiful, particularly if you can avoid getting mugged, as I did. Another post for another time.
3. When you don’t study Classics, your country becomes Soviet.

I’m serious about the last one! I’m reading the incredible ‘Child 44’ by Tom Rob Smith, which is set in the USSR in the 1950s, and came across this passage (most important bit in bold):

Secondary School 7- a rectangular building raised on concrete legs- happened to be one of the gems of the State education policy. Much photographed and publicized, it was opened by none other than Nikita Khrushchev, who’d made a speech in the new gymnasium, the floor of which had been waxed to such an extent that his bodyguards struggled not to slip. He’d claimed that education must be tailored to the country’s needs. And what the country needed were highly productive, healthy young scientists, engineers and Olympic gold-medal-winning athletes. The cathedral-sized gymnasium, adjacent to the main building, was wider and deeper than the school itself, equipped with an indoor running track, an array of mats, hoops, rope ladders and springboards, all of which were put to good use by an extra-curricular timetable that included an hour of training every day for every student regardless of age or ability. The implication of both his speech and the design of the school itself had been always very clear to Raisa: the country didn’t need poets, philosophers and priests. It needed productivity that could be measured and quantified, success that could be timed with a stopwatch.

So there you have it. If no one is allowed to do Classics, we’ll all end up in Soviet Russia (where, as we all know, education learns you).

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Just a quick post before I go off to a lecture.

Sorry I’ve been so lazy about posting- every time I think of something potentially interesting to write work comes along and swallows it. I’m doing so many interesting topics in my course this year, and I would love to get the opinions of others on a lot of the issues they’re raising.

What changed my laziness into action? The radio. More specifically, an advert on the radio encouraging listeners to get more involved with science and maths in order to get higher paid jobs (a higher wage was explicitly mentioned as part of the attraction). Science was summed up in a few attributes like “unwind DNA” and “combat climate change” to make it more alluring, as well as the wage aspect I’ve already mentioned. The problem I had with it was that the advert challenged people to get into scientific studies to help change the world. To me it heavily implied that, unless you did science, you were fairly useless.

It’s not the advert’s fault, and I’m not denying that science is useful. In fact, I’m so utterly dependent on science it’s almost foolish. It’s just that I do not understand why what you study should be dictated by how “useful” it is.

When I had my interview for my beloved university, I was asked by my interviewer why he as a taxpayer should subsidise my degree, when it’s of no use to him. Classicists don’t build bridges, or do surgery, or sue people. In fact, he asked me what made Classics a valid subject when I dismissed stupid degrees like David Beckham studies and the like. I made a really stupid answer which I won’t repeat here, but I still cannot think of a totally satisfying answer to that kind of utilitarianism. It’s a fact I come up against whenever I tell people I do Classics- “Oh really? And what can you do with that?” I also notice that my friends who do History and English never get asked that.

In the UK, Classics is a highly-respected degree, thank goodness. Oxford and Cambridge were originally centres for the more or less exclusive study of Theology and Classics. Yet recently there has been a backlash against such apparently “useless” degrees, and Classics teaching in schools has taken a dive. Theology survives, however, in the name of teaching religious tolerance through education, of which I wholeheartedly approve.

Yet I wonder- people ask me why I bother reading “boring” old texts in “dead” languages, spending my time gazing at broken bits of marble, and yet these same people go to Rome, Pompeii and Greece and look at the remnants of these same civilizations. Classics and classicists frequently make the news, including our very own Mary Beard, whom Vogue has named as one of the top 30 most influential women in Britain. People care deeply about Classics without even realising it- classical monuments and sculpture influence our ideas of beauty and decor and elegance; Greeks are invoked in discussions of sexuality; we drive on Roman roads (and construct modern roads using Roman principles); cities are built on grid patterns; words have hidden meanings.

True, when I leave uni, I’ll probably never have to write about the Iliad again. But I know that I’ll use the tools the Classics has given me (and the foresight which comes from knowing about the past) in every aspect of my professional life. Who knows? I might just be able to change the world. The ancients did.

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