“A Book Is a Machine to Think With”

There’s much ado these days about new reading technologies. In particular, the ebook, but there are more recent innovations in digital reading, too: Spritz is one, and social e-readers are another. The way digital reading is discussed, you’d think people who like reading plain old paper books are Luddites.

But what if I told you that physical books are technological marvels themselves?

I encountered a provocative discussion of how we use this far-out dead-tree technology in–where else?–a book, dead-tree version, by one of my favorite writers, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. After reading this, I’ll never look at a book the same way again.

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The birth of the modern world

There was a time when men could travel only as fast as a horse could run. A time when most grew up, lived, and died within a few miles of their birthplace. When they made a living strictly by use of their own hands. A time when every town kept its own local time, by the position of the sun. When the American West was a vast natural expanse, its features held sacred by its native inhabitants. A time when the concept of capturing and freezing an image, a hint of the past, was an incomprehensible phenomenon.

This time, one forgets, is shockingly recent.

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On the shortness of life

Preoccupations look seductive, but only until you possess them and find them more trouble than they’re worth. We’re quick to toss away years of toil for the promise of some future pension, but when we’re threatened with terminal illness, suddenly every day becomes important. It’s the illusion of the unknown: we discard our time like it’s nothing when we’re not sure how much of it we have left, even acting like it’s infinite, but we value it supremely as soon as our days are numbered.

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In 5 years, you’ll be wrong

We learn that a habit takes on average 66 days to form, that competence is a powerful intrinsic motivator, that people who have more 2-hour dinners with friends live longer, that adding “because” to an e-mail request makes it doubly likely to be granted, and that the most passionate employees are not those who “followed their passion” into a position but instead those who stuck around long enough to get good at what they do.

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The greatest startup of the 20th century

If Norris and Gettler were the Jobs and Wozniak of their time, then the New York City medical examiner’s office was one of the greatest startups of all-time. It helped pioneer a whole field, forensic toxicology, despite nobody believing in it or understanding it, and it did so on a shoestring budget. It also created the political and cultural atmosphere that led to the eradication of poisons from daily-use products, the banishment of lethal intoxicants like lead and radium from American factories, and the granting of real power to the FDA.

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Living on a knife’s edge

The sleeping-sickness, actually a viral disease called encephalitis lethargica, struck no two patients in exactly the same way — this baffled the medical community. Many sufferers slipped in to irreversible comas, while others became so aroused that they died of insomnia. Those who didn’t die tended to fall gradually into a deep Parkinsonism, especially of the “frozen” variety, and had to be institutionalized. Sacks epitomizes their dreadful state with a quote from Donne: “As Sicknes is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sicknes, is solitude… Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itselfe.”

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