Sunday, October 25, 2020

The spread : breadth and depth

Having a personal library could well become a thing of the past - and it's certainly a luxury, a rarefied form of consumerism and something that can function like an identity marker. I say this because I've often been more interested in the time or place that associates with a particular title than the content. And along with this there's the strange business of the scraps of paper that have been used as makeshift bookmarks before that book was abandoned and its restless reader moved on. I've found everything from train tickets to old computer punchcards and postcards lodged in mine. And amongst these ephemera I've also come across my own notes on paper and card. In one book I recently found half a card which said 'Wishing you a speedy recovery'. It wasn't clear who was being wished a speedy recovery and from what, but on the reverse side I'd scrawled the following: 'mechanistic theories of learning individual treatment that a comp. programme may not provide.' I think it's the kind of compressed study note that's often served me well. It doesn't really mean anything at all to me now, but at the time it was something that I was taking from what I read. I do the same sort of thing now, and I imagine it as a helpful way of distilling the essence of what I'm reading. Essence is probably the wrong word, because I'm actually referring to the meaning that I'm taking away, which is a more personal matter. And this meaning may be very different to the one intended by the author - for a start it's much narrower. But so much academic work depends on this process of narrowing down, the process of selecting from, and reducing another source. This is relatively easy in a small, focused area in which a body of literature can be read, analysed and synthesised but I think that there are always problems of scale. When the output is diverse and rapidly changing this is altogether harder to achieve. It would be a real challenge to do this across my personal library, for instance. Which brings me full circle, in fact, to the latest addition to my library which is Ben Lerner's acclaimed novel 'The Topeka School'. I enjoyed reading 'Leaving the Atocha Station' but this is altogether a more complex, more ambitious work of auto-fiction. The theme that concerns me here is what he calls 'the spread'. Briefly, in Lerner's world of high school debating 'the spread' is an important tactic. The spread, in the narrator's words, is 'to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time'. As the novel unfolds the spread becomes an important trope and it stands in for the way in which we can feel paralysed by torrents of information, complex demands on our attention and so on. The popular idea of 'overwhelm' is something similar. And it is rather different from the personal library and the notes on scraps of paper which are attempts - and only attempts - to select, simplify and perhaps to go deeper into things. The spread is wide, overwhelming, destabilising and, in Lerner's world at least, it characterises the times we live in.