Magpie Habits

A couple of days ago Patrick Kurp over at Ancedotal Evidence wrote a post on shallowness or shallow thinking, something he termed nimble-mindedness. The general gist of the post was that we mistake shallowness of thought for not being capable of thinking deeply and that we mistake constant deep thought for profundity. (Having just watched the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again, I’m ever more skeptical of deep thought. I’m not the biggest Douglas Adams fan in the world, but I love that the computer Deep Thought watches T.V.) Kurp’s posting began with a quote from Dave Lull, who argues that

“I don’t think…the Internet causes me to be shallow, which I undoubtedly am, but rather I’m shallow to begin with and have finally found the best environment for my shallowness. But now and then I do think more deeply than usual because of a glittering object that so strongly captures my magpie attention that I can’t easily extricate my thoughts and can’t easily not return both to the glittering object and to the thoughts it stimulates.”

Like Kurp, I find the metaphor of being magpie like in reading and thinking habits an astute one for describing my own methodology. I read several books at once; I read multiple blogs a day.I watch a scary amount of shallow T.V.; the shallower and fluffier the better, actually. I avoid “serious” shows like Mad Men and True Blood. Give me Pysch or Glee or Doctor Who every time. My interests are broad, eclectic, more traditional than I’d like to admit, and for the most part, I collect ideas, images, and text in a magpie like fashion.

Sometimes I agree with Nicholas Carr’s lament that the Internet has changed my reading and thinking habits for the worse, but then I remember that every new medium changes how we read and think. Carr’s argument is an old one. It’s the one that’s made every time we adopt a new medium or even a new genre. I’m perhaps thinking about this argument more as I plan both a novel studies class around Jane Austen and two composition classes on youth culture. The textbook I’m using for my composition courses has a wonderful essay about adolescents today and their reading and writing habits. The essay argues that teenagers actually are reading and writing as they engage in social networking online. It’s just in a discourse people who tend to write hand waving trend pieces on the problems with young people today don’t see as a “proper” discourse. It’s not for the academy or the business world. But, it is for their world. Why aren’t we accepting that as one of many forms of discourse? I don’t kid myself that a semester or two spent in my composition classroom is going to change how my students read or write. Hopefully I can give them skill sets so that they become better critical writers and readers in the academy, but my task isn’t to eradicate their own discourse, which is too often I think how people outside of composition see the function of writing courses. Why would I want to do that? It’s a Sisyphean task to begin with, and one that I don’t believe in. I see my task as helping students realize that there are multiple discourse communities and that the academy is one of those communities. It’s the one they have to navigate right now, and it’s the one that should prepare them for writing and reading in other professions. But, it’s not the only one.

In the history of the novel, there is an almost omnipresent strain of thought that the novel is too much sweetness and that those who read novels somehow aren’t serious enough in their reading habits or their thinking. Part of this argument stems from the novel’s newness; as a popular form, it’s only 250 years old, roughly speaking. Part of it stems from the fact that the novel, from its inception, has always been a mass culture form. And the people writing those essays about the novel’s supposedly inherent badness mistrust mass culture. Novelists have been trying to reclaim the form as elite, but I don’t think they really buy that argument. The novel is a mass culture, magpie form. I tell my students it’s akin to a portmanteau, a large bag that everything goes into. While portmanteau now more often refers to making new words from two existing ones, I like the image of a large grab bag. The novel takes everything in. I guess studying the novel is the epitome of shallow thinking, but I think shallowness or nimble mindedness perhaps leads to more ideas than deep thought. I’m not giving up my magpie habits.


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