Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thinking, reading and zoom level

Once I was playing chess with a 5th grade student of mine.  I paused for a second and he asked what I was doing.  I said I was thinking.  He immediately said,"Oh, no!  Don't think!"  He was right. People such as one's opponents in a game are different when they think and when they don't bother.  Along the same line, the Nobel prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, has a book that I plan to get to sometime called "Thinking, Fast and Slow".  There is a big difference between fast thinking, usually more intuitive, automatic and reflex-based and slower thinking that takes more time and can take more approaches.

When I first heard about postmodernism and Jacques Derrida and that group, I read that Derrida had made some of his points by comparing texts side-by-side.  I know from my own experience trying to understand friends and students deeply that really close reading of the wording used, consideration of the order of points made, careful consideration of what was written is quite different from just a quick and cursory reading.  I had heard of the practice in literature studies and in philosophy of "close reading ".  I know that Biblical scholars do plenty of very close examination.

The Wikipedia entry on close reading says that Derrida once wrote 80 pages of analysis and comment on the word "yes" in a passage in James Joyce's Ulysses.  (There is no citation so I can't tell where you could have the fun of reading them!)  

Listening to "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson, I heard about Franco Moretti, a literary historian, and his practice of "distant reading".  Taking an opposite approach, Moretti looks at periods of books, noting what seems similar in a given time.  Moretti advocates consideration of literary periods for a different view of writing types and fashions.

Mathematical and scientific problem solvers have long advocated using widely different views of a problem.  A friend told me years ago of an incident where someone wrestling with a difficult issue woke during the night and wrote the solution down.  In the morning, he read his own note: "Think in different terms." In computing today, we might say "Use different views".  We all know the feeling we are likely to have if we were informed that we were being investigated by the IRS or the FBI.  We know that very close reading of our papers and lives might well show a view in which we could be convicted of a crime.  In "A Short History of the World", Peter Stearns shows that world historians must use a long view of such a history if they are going to make something comprehensible and usable in a reasonable amount of time.

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