By pure serendipity I received two emails nearly simultaneously from separate correspondents the other day. A friend and colleague spotted A Little History on the "Bestsellers" table (aspirational, surely!) at the Cincinnati airport.
And an international rep from Yale Press found it cozied up with Bill O'Reilly in the Eslite Bookstore in Hong Kong.
Terrific opening paragraph to an article in The New York Review of Books by Jacob Weisberg, especially the epigram from Dwight Macdonald, that unremitting critic of middlebrow culture, or "midcult," from the 1950s. Weisberg's piece, "We Are Hopelessly Hooked," currently available with one easy click, is worth a read for the discussion of how the Web inveigles its way into ever-increasing facets of our daily routines. I do find myself skeptical when it comes to books and essays on the sociopsychological effects of the Internet. Writers tend to split into two camps, the sunny optimists about the potential benefits and the gloomy pessimists convinced we are becoming loners incapable of authentic personal interactions.
Surely the Web is susceptible to use and misuse, like any tool. It has opened up vast worlds at the click of a mouse, it's been a boon for historians and researchers, I will attest; and undoubtedly it has unleashed a plague of trolls who hurl insults and hide behind anonymity. But Weisberg's most telling points come toward the end of the essay, where he turns to the psychology of interactions that all of us experience. The builders of apps increasingly construct their programs based on techniques pioneered at Stanford University's Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute. (Why is it that every damned think tank seems to be designated an "Advanced Research Institute"? How about a little modesty, Ivy Leaguers? Would it kill you to strike Advanced?) In any case, as Weisberg explains:
Clicking indeed is a pleasure that cuts both ways: leading us into worlds that are fascinating to explore...but also tempting us to surf idly and aimlessly. That intent yet listless gaze into the screen is the reflection we seldom see, from which we would recoil if we did.
Now blink several times, go off and take a walk!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors