Tag Archives: information

what books to read and how to read

I came across a book a while ago from 1912 entitled¬†What Books to Read and How to Read when searching around in the university library basement. (Incidentally, this is where all of my wonderful finds come from – including the ones that make up the basis of my research!) It’s such a fascinating and still-relevant book that I’d like to introduce it here. (Full citation: David Pryde, LL.D.¬†What Books to Read and How to Read: Being Suggestions for Those Who Would Seek the Broad Highways of Literature. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.)

The book starts off with the anxiety that is surely familiar to us: there is too much information out there, and it’s growing exponentially. It’s overwhelming. The number of books being printed is too much for any one human to deal with and the problem is only getting worse. What to do in the face of this?

Well, this book has an answer. First, how to read books. You don’t want to become a “dungeon of learning,” someone who reads a wide variety but can’t apply any of it to real life. Instead of just ingesting, investigate first. The advice reads like a library seminar on reliable sources and searching for research leads. Learn something about the author first. Read the preface carefully. Take a comprehensive survey of the table of contents – “if the preface is the appetizer, the table of contents is the bill of fare.”

Give your whole attention to whatever you read. “A book is a representation of the best workings of the author’s soul. In order to understand it, we must shut out our own circumstances, cast off our personal identity, and lose ourselves in the writer before us. We must follow him closely through all his lines of thought, understand clearly all his ideas, and enter into all his feelings. Anything less than this is not worthy of the name of reading.”

Be sure to note the most valuable passages as you read. Write out in your own language a summary of the facts you have noted.

Most important? Apply the results of your reading to your every-day duties.

This guide is a paean to close reading and taking books to heart. It’s a guide to knuckling down and processing information in a useful way, rather than simply succumbing to the overwhelming amount of books out there. It’s reading for use, not reading for reading’s sake.

The second half of the book involves a full bibliography of books you should read, and annotations of them. It’s a catalog of useful knowledge that everyone ought to be familiar with.

There is much to be said for going outside a set canon and reading widely, and for not relying on authoritative sources to tell you what to read. But I can’t help but wish there were an updated version of this book – and perhaps the “how to read” does not really need to be updated. Actually, the bibliography probably doesn’t need to be either. But it could be adapted and expanded to meet the specific contents of our information overload now. In any case, I found it remarkable that 100 years ago this year, someone was writing in a very 21st-century way about just the same problems that we wrestle with now, and over which many anxious words have been spilled.

Information. It’s always a problem. The question is what you’ll do about it. Say what you will about the contents of any particular bibliography, but the advice of Mr. Pryde is timeless.

post office as information central?

The future of the post office – and of snail mail generally – is a frequent topic these days. (Well, it has been for a while.) I listened to an excellent show from On Point the other week that had on several people, including someone with the post office. It was excellent in that the guests made several really strange points that were extremely thought-provoking, and I’d never heard them before. I think they deserve to be discussed widely: they broaden the conversation from just “post office or not?” and think about the actual role of this institution in serving its consituents. What is the point of the post office, anyway?

The post office delivers information, reliably (mostly) and often securely. It provides a way to get delivery confirmation and insurance on your stuff, rents out mailboxes (especially important for people in neighborhoods where mail delivery is unreliable, often due to the lack of safety and lack of access to mailboxes – and lack of maintenance by landlords). It lets you get stuff where it’s going, fast. I know that UPS and FedEx and DHL do these kinds of things too, but for general purpose information delivery, the post office is here to serve all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what. This is its mission.

As time goes on, demand and form of information changes, obviously. We’ve already had new technologies and new regimes of categorization that bave been developed to accommodate changing needs. I have only to look at pre-ZIP code letters to be reminded of this. Honestly, for someone who has grown up with ZIP codes, it’s shocking. Within my lifetime, moreover, the place of ZIP codes on the envelope has changed (no longer a need for a new line; in fact writing it along with the city and state is encouraged). We have even more, better technology for reading the messiest handwriting, for distinguishing that ZIP code (and now, a 4-digit code afterwards that means it’s your house) from the text written next to it. We’re getting pretty advanced, here, if you think about it.

So now there is the fairly dramatic change of declining mail volume, which has not been accompanied by a high enough increase in stamp prices to keep up with the times (really, every other country in which I’ve mailed a letter has been close to $1 for even domestic mail). We have a lot of people conducting their information needs online, even those bits of information that must be kept secure: banking, shopping, student financial aid and loan applications and processing, university business (I’m thinking of my own stuff here). We need secure document delivery, and we need it to be a lot better than it is now. Recent break-ins to companies that are holding customer and credit card information (ahem, SONY) are making this abundantly clear.

In light of this, do we need some kind of central, trusted authority that we can go to for secure document delivery?

I argue yes, and I argue that this is exactly a natural place for the post office to step in. I’m not talking about printing out PDFs and making sure they get securely to their destinations. I’m talking about a secure information infrastructure provided as a public service for all of us. No, it will not replace our banking or our insecure game network accounts. But don’t you think that this would be a great service, one that we can’t quite imagine now what it would look like… and one that exactly fits the mission and history of the post office?

Through any kind of calamity, no matter what, we will get your stuff securely and reliably to where it needs to be. We will make it available to you, no matter what.

This sounds a lot like the current mission that surrounds the delivery of paper mail and packages. I am not arguing that this should replace what they’re doing. Don’t close all the post offices and argue Internet for everything. There are still a lot of things that need to be delivered securely by post: you wouldn’t believe how few forms will take my secure Adobe digital signature on the PDF as the equivalent of a pen signature. Imagine being able to develop that pen signature (so easy to forge) into something more secure, in digital form. Would that not be awesome?

With the way things are going, I hardly think that anyone in government would consider this kind of natural evolution as worthy of supporting, as worthy of seed money for infrastructure. We are not so good at thinking outside the current narrow box of the status quo; we have blinders on that we can’t seem to remove. But the post office itself sees itself as needing a transformation for proceeding from here on out. If only innovation and creativity could win out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, this whole post office closure thing? Most articles I read are about people complaining they would have to drive 6 miles to the nearest post office. Guess what. I have had to drive miles to the nearest post office my whole life, because I have been unlucky enough to grow up in the suburbs, then live in a city that thinks it’s a great idea to build their fancy new post office (and library!) miles away from our small but active downtown, and make it miles away from any public transit: you can’t walk either, because you’d need to get across several very dangerous freeway on and off ramps. Seriously.