Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Good Books as Pools of Knowledge Par Excellence

Today's column:

My favorite sports writer, Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, recently returned from Las Vegas, host to this year's NBA all-star game and related festivities. In a mammoth column about his experience, he noted:

[S]ocial trends that I noticed in Miami (for the Super Bowl) and Vegas last weekend...

Instead of playing full songs, clubs now play one-minute samples of songs and barrage you with choruses. I like this trend because you never know what's coming next, although it's depressing that our attention spans have been whittled down to the degree that clubs feel obligated to change songs every 60 seconds.

Simmons' observation is hardly ground-breaking. The dearth in the attention span of Americans has been well documented. MTV, once home to, well, music, now plays, in between re-runs of Laguna Beach and Pimp My Ride, insignificantly short clips of music videos. But the stunningly embarrassing state of the average American attention span is of little concern, especially when it comes to things like television. It is unlikely, for instance, that the full video of whomever it is kids are listening to these days is of more value than would be a minute slice thereof.

But such is not true when it comes to other mediums. Take this column for instance. It is highly improbable that the reader will gather much from my limited efforts. A few hundred words will provide one a morsel to chew on between classes, but even were I a better writer than I am, my effect would still be slight. For a full meal, one needs to devour books.

For instance, reading a column which draws parallels between modern America and the Roman republic will give the foolish reader a feeling that he understands both ancient Rome and modern America, though he is almost certainly ignorant about the former—and probably about the latter as well. But if a reader picks up Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he cannot help but mitigate his ignorance concerning the mighty empire of yore, once he gets past the precarious prose. Put plainly, good books are of infinite more value than simple columns, even if the latter are well written.

Unfortunately, few read books anymore, still fewer read good books. I do not offer myself as a judge of good literature, though I will confidently assert that Dan Brown and Danielle Steel aren't fit to furnish the pen for James Joyce or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Still, one who can read a shoddy novel should be capable of reading a good one as well, with practice perhaps. At least the attention span is sufficient.

Spring break quickly approaches. The lobotomy box will no doubt offer wonderful programming for the vacuously inclined. And Cosmo promises to let the ladies know just when to start sleeping with the latest boy toy. But those who wish to learn something should throw out the tube and the magazines and get thee to a library. As for myself, I'll be continuing to read Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae with hopes to polish off Winston Churchill's memoirs. I just don't know if I'll have time to make it to the club.

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