Susanne Dunlap

Signs and symbols, messages and meaning

In Random thoughts, The writing life on April 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Lately I’ve been reading James Gleick’s important book, The Information. Before I launch into my observations about it I have to say that anyone thoughtful who lives in our world must, I repeat, must, read it. I don’t say that often. Books are generally a matter of taste, and something I like might seem silly or stupid or unimportant to someone else. But in this case, whatever your feelings about non-fiction, I urge you to make an exception.

Why do I feel this way? Because Gleick pieces together the elements of communication and meaning that we, as a species, have evolved over time, and reveals a continuum, a trajectory, that makes sense of so many things.

He starts with the language of African drums, progresses through the way that written language changed everything about how human beings thought of the world, to an examination of the early steps that identified information as something that can be measured and analyzed. Simple concepts, like the blossoming elegraph wires in the nineteenth century being described as a “net-work” traversing the landscape, suddenly make sense of our immensely fast and complicated way of interrelating to each other through words and encoded electronic impulses.

The very fact that I’m able to write this, now, as I sit in a lovely restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn (Superfine, if you want to know) simply wouldn’t have been possible without all those trailblazers and their sometimes outlandish, abortive attempts to make the next great thing, to find ways to send messages faster. For instance: the very idea of standardized time depended on faster communications. Not to mention the concept of a weather report! Imagine when weather was something that simply happened suddenly, without warning, with no relation to any nearby place. Or when time was dependent only on the local moments that defined it: when the sun was at its highest point defining the noon hour. Would it surprise you to know that no one minded much about that until standardized time was essential to ensure that trains didn’t collide?

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but as a historical novelist as well as a normal human being, I find all these matters extraordinarily important.

So, read the book. You won’t be sorry you spent the time

  1. Mm – brilliant. I like books like this, that explain why we live the way we live. Sometimes Jared Diamond strikes that kind of a chord too. I enjoyed this.

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