Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Textbook Knowledge

Not long ago, I read Andrew Gordon's “A History of Modern Japan,” considered one of the definitive texts on how Japan, from the Meiji Revolution to the present day, has transformed from hermit kingdom to economic power. And I can safely recommend it for anyone who's looking for a solid source of meat-and-potatoes history about that particularly much-misunderstood nation.

But what I thought about the most in the days following was not so much what I had read, but how long it had been since I'd read a book that was even remotely similar – a book full of straightforward, narrative history. Here is how things happened, how event X paved the way for event Y, without any kind of explicit theoretical or ideological framework, without much of an argument, per se.

I suppose this is what you would call “textbook” or “encyclopedia” knowledge. Now, having read my Marx and my Gramsci, I know full well that this kind of knowledge is by no means “neutral.” There is an ideology in what is and is not told, how it is narrated, no matter how light Gordon attempted to make his fingerprint. Perhaps some more hard-core postmodernists or phenomenological thinkers would say that such a history says nothing about the events in question, and only says something about the author and his or her prejudices, contexts, and perceptive faculties, but I'm not quite that isolated.

Yet it is undoubtedly that kind of skepticism that prevents me from reading books full of just-the-facts. To me, it seems infinitely more honest when authors lay down their cards and cop to their stance, their context, whether or not I agree with their approach, before they get to the subjects of their argument (and yes, I know the hardline perspective would deny the “subjectness” of the supposed subjects, but let's all be William James about this and say that there is indeed a subject there, until a decent argument is made to the contrary).

This isn't to say that I avoid this kind of writing entirely, but I contain my experience of it to shorter form work, to scientific journals (when I'm feeling rigorous), Wikipedia articles (when I'm not, which is more than I care to admit), and those standard-issue publications that have best resisted the temptation to become clickbait.

Because a book seems to serve a different purpose for me – it is something more totemic, regardless of whether it is “fiction” or not, to the extent that distinction has merit (leave that topic for another day). To read a book is to dissolve myself.

And yet, up until my early teens, it was quite the opposite. On the contrary, I just wanted to sponge up knowledge, and it frustrated me when the text failed to act as a neutral medium, a sort of agar gel for ideas to grow in and express their true, absolute form. Which I suppose makes sense – children aren't exactly renowned for their sense of nuance, and that probably goes double for annoyingly precocious children.

There is a certain irony that I seek those sorts of fact-driven arguments in the world of the shorter form, considering the fractured media landscape which we inhabit. In which that framework has to such a great degree swallowed the facts themselves, whether the media outlets in question are mocking the very notion that a statistic in a major American newspaper could be true (a practice of both the sorts of entities that come charging in with their ideologies, banners waving, and those that conceal their ideologies under a veneer of “nonpartisanship”), or whether the media outlets in question are telling us how to feel about an article before we even read it (number 8 will make you CRINGE!!!).

However, these are stupidities that, in my reading life, I can safely and comfortably ignore, even if I feel the need to occasionally check the cesspool to perform a stool-sample analysis on the hive mind's feces. When I read something as simple as a research report on primate behavior, I'm a bit less frazzled. And when I shut off my computer, and look up at my bookshelf, and see the possibility for something more measured, I am again approaching contentedness.