08 June 2021

B.W'd.Y.G addendum

A quick and bloggy addendum on looking for edification in all the wrong online places:

As I continue to trawl/troll Blogspot for distant voices of reason, I am frequently reminded, for one, that this is asking a lot no matter the medium, but also that the analytic/speculative/critical orientation remains very much a preoccupation of a tiny woolly-headed minority of thinkers, even (or is it especially?) now that it has been institutionalized and co-opted.

In plain English now, I am rather taken aback not so much at any lack of literacy or erudition but rather at the sheer number of "book reports" that people have written and posted, summaries of other authors' work which are in and of themselves accurate, grammatical, well-proofread, etc., more so in fact than we have been led to expect from The Internet, but from which any whiff of original analysis or insight is, let's say, conspicuous by its absence.

There is a specifically journalistic version of this wherein some bygone writer/thinker is exhumed in order to be offered as an antidote to or perspective on some current political event. In this there is at least some gentle stirring of analytic thought, some positing of a connection or juxtaposition between two ideas or ideologies; but if you have in fact already read the book which the author wishes more people nowadays would read (in other words, if you are like me in that you only go looking for original thought online after grinding away at a fair bit of your own), then for you these are still "book reports" which rarely take note of anything you have not already noticed yourself. I often go online hoping to find out what I have not noticed about a given work I want to cite or write about. I am finding that this bet doesn't pay out very often or very well. (I hasten to add that academic journals on the whole, and I really mean this, are not much better, not unless the article in question is a true landmark document. I have the best luck with physical books published before the PowerMac. I am quite underwhelmed by just about everything else.)

I believe it was Ms. Wright in 11th grade IB English who quite explicitly weaponized "book report" as an epithet and a piece of negative advice. We were therein admonished to understand the difference between writing a summary of a book and writing an essay about the ideas presented in the book, and about our own ideas about those ideas. We were also made to understand that many high schools out in the suburbs practice grade inflation while assigning less rigorous work than we would be doing, and that if we thought this unfair then it was tough beans for us. I've lived to have mixed feelings about the overall effect that all of this rigor had on me for the ensuing decade or so. But PHHS really did have some great teachers who "get it."

That said, I think that grade inflation and general soullessness is at best half the answer to the present riddle. My free-wheeling speculation is that the "book report" is, consciously or otherwise, just a more erudite and better-proofread version of clickbait. "Book report" bloggers are more likely to have something for sale, literally or figuratively. And, while it may of course be countered that summaries of Erich Fromm books are never going to get as many clicks as a well-curated cat video, I'm not sure that this conclusively rules out my theory.

Among my central interests here, which do not include cat videos even though I enjoy them as much as the next guy, it is not too hard now that google supplies some pageview data within the dashboard here to make some educated guesses about what kinds of posts might get the most attention. Ever since I posted it, my transcription of Wayne Shorter's Pinocchio has been by far the most viewed page on this site, often doubling up on the next closest competitor. A really terrible essay that I wrote for a class at CalArts, on Ligeti's Lontano, posted as a placeholder during a Blog Month, is always near the top. I would of course prefer it if Against the Literary Imperative or any of the essays on Mumford's Art and Technics were the most viewed; but I suppose I would have to delete everything else to make that happen, and even then this would be a lowering rather than a raising of the tide.

There are many other possible explanations for the "book report" phenomenon: a genuine desire to create something more accessible than the books themselves, any of a number of esoteric personal motivations, and, of course, the mere conceit to original thought in absence of any real ability to toss it off. But I do wonder if clicks are not part of the equation and if desperate slacker college students are not in and of themselves a formidable mass of clickers.

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