Books capture the zeitgeist in a way that videos rarely do

(“My Dear Students,” a biweekly column that’s a conversation with young minds about current events, books, popular culture, pretty much anything worth talking about over a cup of coffee.)

My dear students

One day, many years ago, I completed a class on Aristotle’s political philosophy and was about to return to my office when a student approached me. “Sir,” he said, “I enjoyed your class, but I wanted to know if you could share some videos with us.” I was new to this line of thinking, so when I asked for an explanation, he replied that videos explaining Aristotle’s philosophy would have been helpful in his learning.

I was a little dumbfounded. Learning Aristotle through a video? I told the student that I cannot recommend any videos on Aristotle. I should read the text of the “Nicomachean Ethics” as closely as possible. I thought of this incident recently when I was desperately searching for videos online to learn more about cryptocurrencies. I had been reduced to looking for videos because I couldn’t find any text accessible in print.

Instead, I found several great videos that explained the ideas clearly and precisely. My experience with learning cryptography was an overwhelming experience. I no longer scoff at videos as an instructional tool. To be clear, I have never mocked video as a form of entertainment. I always tell my students, unfortunately to little effect, that ‘The Wire’ (released two decades ago) is probably the best cultural product to come out of the US, regardless of whether it’s a TV show. These portraits of American law and order, media, education and work that use Baltimore as a pivot are both fascinating and revealing. Video brings an immediacy and liveliness to entertainment that other media can rarely match.

But beyond entertainment and targeted instruction (like crypto videos), I still believe that video has its limitations compared to the written word. Books capture the zeitgeist in a way that videos rarely do.

Last week, I was reading “If Then” by Jill Lepore. It’s a book about the history of something we all hear about every day but know very little about: data science. In the 1950s and 1960s, a corporation called Simulmatics pioneered the art of predicting human behavior through the science of data analysis. Being deficient in both data and science, it was a spectacular failure. I thought Jill Lepore would say something about failure being instructive, but there is no such thing in the book.

It is a narrative of failure, not a harbinger of things to come. However, because it is a well-researched book, it took me, as videos rarely do, on a journey of discovery. Data science was almost beside the point. I learned interesting things about the personalities and issues of post WWII America. I learned from presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson, who was hopeless at being a politician but great at being a speechwriter. I heard about Saul Bellow, the writer. I read about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy Administration. I stumbled across a statement describing the effect of the JFK assassination on the American public. When John F Kennedy died, it seemed to ordinary Americans that the world would never be the same again: “And the waves lapped the shore, and the sun shone, and everything was the same, except it wasn’t.”

Books allow us to construct the world we are reading about in a way that is unique to us. The characters speak with the voices we provide. The tone, the texture, the emotional registers, the local color, the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, even if they are not our creations, we mark them with our personality and our imagination. Videos can never come close to such an immersive experience where we are active contributors to the world that someone else has created.

As videos take up more of our time, we will lose our ability to absorb knowledge, both trivial and periodical, in the broad, aimless way that books can provide. If we don’t let phrases and aphorisms marinate in our minds, our articulation of our imaginations will be diminished. Videos will always be deviant, and fun is important in the aggravating lives we lead. But we don’t want to go through this world deviating. We want to nurture a sense of curiosity and wonder. We want art that gently pushes us to expand our minds, that makes us think even when we’d rather not. Videos can dazzle us, but sometimes we prefer to be fooled. I hope you remember this as you navigate your school and college lives.

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