Friday, March 21, 2008

Gass on Information and Books

William H. Gass writes in "A Defense of the Book," found in A Temple of Texts. Essays By William H. Gass (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 170: "Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has not destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and two what uses it going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in."

Gass makes essentially two claims in this passage:

(i) the Internet is essentially useless, and
(ii) information per se is of minor importance: "What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. What matters is the book the data's in."

One can agree with (ii), while disagreeing with (i). Even if it is true that the information one can find on the Internet, understood as raw data, is of minor importance, in need to be checked, and often useless, this does not mean that the Internet is useless. It is a tool. And like all tools, it can be used the right way or the wrong way. So, I would reject the first claim.

The second claim may be analysed into three sub-claims that lead to the conclusion that it is books that really matter. They are:

(a) the arrangement of the information is what is most important
(b) the arrangement of the information has something to do with understanding (and usefulness)
(c) the arrangement or understanding of the data is found in books

I agree with all three claims to varying degrees. Yes, "it's not the data, it's the relationships." Building complex relationships between what at first glance appear unrelated bits and pieces is what research and writing is about. Only when one has a hypothesis about how apparently quite disparate information is related, do things become interesting. Research might be - and has been - described as the attempt to accumulate materials for a structure that does not yet exist. It also seems true to me that the way we arrange or connect disparate pieces is at least part of the process of discovery. Numerous notebooks of scientists and writers attest to this. Finally, it cannot be denied that this understanding and arrangement of information needs its own context.

But does this mean that where it's at is just bound volumes of paper? I don't think so. Mind you, I have nothing against books. My house is full of them and I love them. Furthermore, traditionally the arrangement and and understanding of data have been disseminated through books (and other paper products). But it would be a mistake to think that these were always printed books. Often they were first hand-written books. And Gass' article itself does start out with Ben Johnson's commonplace books.

The function of commonplace or note books can - and has been - taken over by electronic media like IdeaNotes and ConnectedText. I find especially the latter a great aid in the arrangement and understanding of information.

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