A Nobel Laureate begs for books in a world of superfluities

We need to read more. We understand so litt.e

Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her acceptance speech clamors for depth in our discussions. The very fact that TechCrunch - king of the tech soundbite - dissed it is testament enough of the veracity of her words.

We live in a very shallow culture. I feel this in just a small way with my posts. If I want maximum pageviews I say something shallow but controversial about Apple, Microsoft, or Google. A post about the iPod - any post - will garner more attention than a post probing Oracle's licensing model and what it may mean for enterprises. (Dan Farber notes this same phenomenon in discussing coverage of enterprise versus consumer software.)

Today on the Tube in London I noticed that no one was reading the Independent, Guardian, or Times. Just Metro because it's free and easy.

Against this backdrop, Ms. Lessing's counsel seems appropriate and biting:

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"...

But here is the difficulty. Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books....

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I am grateful to have been raised with a love of books. I spend an hour each evening reading to my children, hoping they, too, will grow up with a passion for reading and writing. It's wrong, I know, but I care far more about their ability to understand Dostoevsky than calculus. The latter might make them rich, but the former will make them human.

That said, I do wish I could code. Those who can code their business ideas in code have an advantage over those of us who can't. I had dinner with Mark Shuttleworth last night and we discussed this. I can think about Ubuntu, but he can actually do it. Code is power.

Literature is not the only important thing in the world, clearly. But though I envy the ability to code, I'd rather be able to read. Had I the talent for both, I'd be an accomplished person, indeed.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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