Richard Polt has an interesting post about the assumption of paper in speculative fiction from the past:
Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn’t occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.
Note that the word “paper” does not actually appear in any of these passages. That’s the way it is with things we take for granted: they’re as invisible as the air we breathe.
I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?
(This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” briefing, which actually establishes a helpful framework for analysis, and Chuck Klosterman’s great book But What If We’re Wrong?, which interrogates the assumptions we’ve turned into self-evident conclusions.)
The question of paper’s place in a digital society popped into my life today at a doctor’s office. I had to fill out an intake form as usual, but with a twist: it was the first time the form was digital. It was on a PhreesiaPad, a touchscreen encased by a clunky orange plastic shell that made it look like a kid’s toy. The opening screen said “Paper Is So 20th Century”.
I assume these devices help speed up information processing in clinics and contribute to the all-encompassing idol goal of Efficiency in businesses. But if I had to bet on whether the PhreesiaPad or paper will still be around in 10 years, even 5 years, it’s paper all the way. I’ll be surprised if all those cheaply made tablets and their ilk make it to next year before getting disrupted into obsolescence by the Next Big Thing.
Paper is so 20th century. And 19th. And 18th. And 17th. And 16th. And 15th. And so on for a long, long time. So long that you can count paper’s age in millennia. Silicon Valley startups and speculative fiction authors have a lot of intriguing ideas about what the future will look like, but until they figure out how to close in on paper’s 2,000-year head start I won’t be worried about its fate.
According to my records I read more than ever in 2016. Partially this was due to starting as a book reviewer for two library trade journals, thus increasing the volume of pages coming my way. But I also made more time overall for reading, because I love it and I work at a library and there are too many books out there and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my top 10 books from 2016, ranked:
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I don’t cry while reading books. I didn’t cry while reading this one, but I came close. Written in the final months of Kalanithi’s life, it’s the story of the young neurosurgeon’s career intertwined with his struggle against his lung cancer diagnosis. Kalanithi had a master’s in literature along with his medical training and it shows; linking left- and right-brain thinking, he builds upon his close familiarity with morality with a deep, probing search for meaning.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Jahren, whose father was a scientist and mother loved literature, embodies both worlds in this memoir that contrasts her journey as a struggling biologist with the lives of the trees she studies. So much wisdom, humor, and hard-won experience in this book. I copied many sentences for future reference and inspiration. Would make a good pairing with When Breath Becomes Air.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. I tend to read more nonfiction than novels, so I try to make the fiction I read worth the time. This thriller certainly was. From the deadbeat Doug to the nefarious blowhard pundit Bill to the troubled Charlie to even the maybe-hero Scott (not Gus: Gus was cool), Hawley nestles illustrations of masculinity’s destructive toxicity within a well-crafted, slow-boiling whodunit that’s also a superb character study.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Another stranger than fiction historical yarn from the author of Destiny of the Republic. If you only know Winston Churchill from World War II, check out this wild chapter of his younger life when he was an ambitious, vainglorious scion of British nobility who was captured as a war correspondent in the Boer War.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride. From the author of a personal favorite The Good Lord Bird comes this impressionistic portrait of the Godfather of Soul’s rise and fall. McBride eschews the typical conventions of biography in favor of a more journalistic approach, interviewing Brown’s loved ones and others who knew him well to compose a rich tapestry of a complicated man.
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon. Not at all a comics person, so I appreciated this very thorough yet propulsive history of Batman since his inception in 1939. Since I listened to the audiobook I can’t speak to how Weldon’s voice comes through on the page, but in my ear it was amazing. Any listeners of Pop Culture Happy Hour will greatly enjoy this as a kind of extended, uncut Gleniana—my favorite part being his adoption of Comic Book Guy’s voice whenever he quotes the overheated prose of indignant nerds.
Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Workshopby Nick Offerman. Trademark Offerman: delicious prose, self-deprecating humor, child-like glee, and a humble appreciation for just being there, so to speak. It’s a beautiful book, mixing bountiful wood-porn photos, short essays, and step-by-step instructions for a variety of projects, one or two of which I’d like to attempt. But really, it’s worth it for the “Best Way to Fell A Tree” comic alone.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Johnson is a master storyteller, weaving disparate elements together into a rich and seamless tapestry of technology and human history. That the book also has its own companion podcast of the same name is fitting, as his writing is just as pleasing to the ears as it is on the page. It’s a great book for all curious readers but especially for the history-averse, who will enjoy the fast pace, topical diversity, and abundant trivia. (See also: Johnson’s How We Got to Now.)
When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey. One of the first books I reviewed for Library Journal, and the first starred review I gave. You know a book is good when it discusses the Sumerian cuneiform, ancient Greek mnemonics, Gutenberg’s press, Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, and the Internet Archive.
Favorite non-2016 books I read this year:
Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots by Rod Dreher. Amidst the remains of the modern GOP, I hope this book is salvaged from the rubble and becomes a foundational text for revival. Review here.
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage. Standage points out that a Victorian transported to the twenty-first century would not be terribly bewildered by the Internet, given how similar it is to the telegraph. (Though the space shuttle would probably blow their minds.) Though eventually eclipsed by the telephone, the telegraph was the first and arguably one of the biggest sudden technological leaps we’ve experienced. Time and space instantly shrunk; information that used to travel at the speed of the horse suddenly arrived instantaneously, and the new industry’s standards would continue to inform new technologies, including the new Internet. There are so many particular times and topics we today know little about, simply due to the steady march of time and new technology. Niche history books like this one perform a great service in looking back and illuminating what came before us in a digestible and fascinating story.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopiaby Michael Booth. Read this for research before visiting Scandinavia this last summer. Proud to be one-eighth Finnish and Norwegian! Booth’s baffled British perspective nevertheless finds a lot to admire in the Nordic Way. See also: Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism by Nima Sanandaji.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrationby Isabel Wilkerson. As good as advertised.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanchesby S.C. Gwynne. Excepting the unfortunate overuse of italics for emphasis, which made many lines seem like political ad narration, this book was amazing. Gwynne’s prose is so muscular it’s like every paragraph is a pushup. How does Quanah Parker not have an HBO miniseries about him yet? If all you know about the Comanche is from The Searchers, check this one out immediately, followed by Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.
The book’s title also serves as the thesis statement, and it’s one I fully support and think about all the time, probably to a fault. Constantly assuming I could be wrong about anything can be crippling at times, lead to endless perseverating and second-guessing. It is also empowering and relieving: I can rest assured knowing that I am not my ideas, that my identity is not tied to how tightly I cling to beliefs or how many I convert to my causes.
In But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman turns this same duality into high cultural criticism. Like a home inspector in search of weak spots, he wends through contemporary issues in sports, politics, science, and history to interrogate the conclusions we’ve turned into self-evident assumptions. Do we have gravity all wrong? Will the NFL be around in thirty years? Are Americans too obsessed with freedom? Removed from his commentary these questions look like clickbaity headlines, but they are worth prodding within the purview of Klosterman’s thesis.
To start off my highlights, there are benefits to assuming you might be wrong:
There are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is. And it’s exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that’s as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come. If you aspire to be truly open-minded, you can’t just try to see the other side of an argument. That’s not enough. You have to go all the way.
This is exactly right. Humility and wonder are two sides of the same coin: to be incurious and doggedly certain is to be prideful. It also means you’ll be a pain to be around:
I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversation and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be.
He digs into the current obsession with the “You’re Doing It Wrong” style of commentary, which seeks to replace one idea or style of thinking with a new one, despite the fact that they are not mutually exclusive. It’s not the new idea that’s the problem; it’s the need for someone to insist New Way Desirable, Old Way Undesirable with a disturbing disregard for the possibility that two ways can exist at once.
“I realize certain modes of thinking can become outdated,” Klosterman writes. “But outdated modes are essential to understanding outdated times, which are the only times that exist.” New does not equal better. This is essential to understand when studying history, or when trying to look at today through the eyes of the distant future.
We’re all outdated—we just don’t know it yet:
We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).
You get smaller as the world gets big The more you know you know you don’t know shit “The whiz man” will never fit you like “the whiz kid” did So why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know? It’s okay if you don’t know everything
I love those lyrics. It’s applicable in so many situations (especially in an election year), but it’s most applicable to that “smaller, deeper” part of our minds that transcends our earthen fallibility. It’s the kind of thing I imagine a monk learns once he reaches nirvana. Then again, maybe it’s something most of us learn as we age.
I do think Klosterman goes too far out on a limb here about the use of math:
We are not the first society to conclude that our version of reality is objectively true. But we could be the first society to express that belief and is never contradicted, because we might be the first society to really get there. We might be the last society, because—now—we translate absolutely everything into math. And math is an obdurate bitch.
Reconcile this sentiment with what he writes later about sports analytics:
The problem with sports analytics is not that they are flawed; the problem is that they are accurate, to the benefit of almost no one. It’s being right for the sake of being right, in a context where there was never any downside to being wrong.
His point about analytics, basically, is that they are overkill in sports, which as spontaneous, low-stakes entertainment should be enjoyed rather than dissected. Yes, math gives us a certain comfort about our certainty about things. But to think we’ve reached the pinnacle of civilized thought simply because we turn everything into numbers directly contradicts the whole point of this book. C’mon, Chuck, don’t go soft on uncertainty now!
(If I can add another quibble: the book is rife with a pet peeve of mine. It’s when counterpoints start with “Now,”—as in I’m making an assertion. Now, I understand why some would disagree. This drives me bonkers. In absolutely every instance the Now is unnecessary, yet the book is full of them. </rant>)
The preface insists the book is not a collection of essays, probably because that’s what most readers are used to from Klosterman. He’s right in a way; the chapters depend on and link to each other more than a usual collection of essays. But it also felt like a large merry-go-around that you can jump onto at any point and still enjoy the ride. And I really did. It would make a nice companion to James Gleick’s forthcoming book Time Travel: A History (which I reviewed for Library Journal), another omnivorous and stimulating conversation on a topic you didn’t realize you wanted to consider.