Saturday, November 18, 2006

A "From The Stacks Challenge" entry

The Well Educated Mind
An entry for Michelle's From-The-Stacks Challenge

More on reading as an activity and The Well Educated Mind:

Professionally, I work with both content providers and libraries. In a period when Google is digitizing and indexing books, I have a vested interest in figuring out what underlies reading as an activity and in observing how readers think about books and their various uses in educating and entertaining. Usage behaviors are the underlay for decisions regarding user interfaces in digital environments. We're transitioning between print and fully-electronic delivery, so these issues are critical to both librarians and content providers (publishers).

Ideally, an author and a reader don't need a mediator. In a perfect world, the mind of the author reaches across time and touches the mind of the reader. As an example, I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley for the very first time as a working mother, about two years after giving birth to my youngest son (just now turned 18). That reading experience actually helped me to clarify what my emotional anxieties were at that point in my life. I could so easily relate to the level of exhaustion and the overwhelming burden of responsibility and guilt that drove Victor Frankenstein's actions. I too was intimidated by the requirements of parenting; doubtful that I could live up to this creature's needs. Shelley's mind and mine met across a span of more than 150 years. To my way of thinking, that's the sign of a great work of literature; I, as a reader, had no doubts as to what Shelley was talking about. I knew instinctively that it had little to do with the misuse of technology or science and I remember telling a friend (another woman with young children) that I thought Frankenstein was the most subversive piece of literature by a woman that I had ever encountered. In fact, I warmed up to the theme and told her I thought the 1931 Boris Karloff movie classic was just about the worse bastardization of a novel's intent that I had ever encountered. I didn't pound my shoe on the table, but I was pretty emphatic.

I think that kind of interaction with a book is what Susan Wise Bauer is trying to encourage in readers of The Well-Educated Mind. As I said previously , Bauer's book is a detailed outline of how to gain the most benefit from reading beyond superficial entertainment and/or distraction. Given the importance associated these days with lifelong learning, I think there may be a growing need in the marketplace for works that can bolster our acuity or even remind us that we shouldn't just stop exercising our curiosity. If Google's digitization project does anything, it makes it a tad easier for readers to find something that might intrigue them as a topic. Bauer looks at five forms -- the novel, autobiography, history, drama and poetry -- in the hope of inculcating the adult reader with a sense of the value associated with the individual in Western culture. The development of those forms mirrors the development of that value in ourselves. The questions that she advises the reader to ask in studying each of these forms are designed to provoke more than a cursory response. You can quibble with her selected bibliography of works that she sets forth for each form but they are deliberate choices for the purposes of shaping a thought process. Were I constructing such a bibliography, I might have chosen differently but that isn't to say that her recommendations were faulty, given Bauer's intent.

My only real irritation in assessing the book was the lack of preface or introduction. I understand that one might not want to intimidate the very reader that this book is aimed at supporting, but a trained information professional expects to be able to quickly scan such front matter to determine whether or not a book satisfies a particular need. If there's a major failing in this book, I think it was that lapse in publishing practice, although nowadays you can't always know whether such an omission was the fault of the publisher for financial reasons (ie. page counts, marketing, or whatever) or the author's intentional omission by choice. The book's website doesn't exactly address my concerns either, so I am assuming it was the author's decision.

I think it's interesting that Web-based feedback on this book range the spectrum (between this and this). Clearly, not everyone will find this book appropriate to their need. Some business readers, for example, will think something on the order of this article will be more than adequate. I was reading Well-Educated Mind particularly for the manner in which Bauer broke apart the mental process rather than because I felt a need to supplement my education. I am not necessarily motivated to immediately follow her recommended course of study; I will however keep the book as a reference work, useful for keeping my own reading process sharp.