kottke.org posts about thebestamericanessays2007

The Best American Essays 2007Oct 02 2007

The Best American Essays 2007

I've had this damn thing up in a browser tab for literally months1 and finally got around to reading it, "this damn thing" being editor David Foster Wallace's introduction to The Best American Essays 2007. In it, Wallace describes his role in compiling the essays collection as that of The Decider. As in, he Deciders what goes into the book according to his subjective view and not necessarily because the essays are "Best", "American", or even "Essays".

Which, yes, all right, entitles you to ask what 'value' means here and whether it's any kind of improvement, in specificity and traction, over the cover's 'Best.' I'm not sure that it's finally better or less slippery than 'Best,' but I do know it's different. 'Value' sidesteps some of the metaphysics that makes pure aesthetics such a headache, for one thing. It's also more openly, candidly subjective: since things have value only to people, the idea of some limited, subjective human doing the valuing is sort of built right into the term. That all seems tidy and uncontroversial so far -- although there's still the question of just what this limited human actually means by 'value' as a criterion.

One thing I'm sure it means is that this year's BAE does not necessarily comprise the twenty-two very best-written or most beautiful essays published in 2006. Some of the book's essays are quite beautiful indeed, and most are extremely well written and/or show a masterly awareness of craft (whatever exactly that is). But others aren't, don't, especially - but they have other virtues that make them valuable. And I know that many of these virtues have to do with the ways in which the pieces handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise. This claim might itself look slippery, because of course any published essay is a burst of information and context that is by definition part of 2007's overall roar of info and context. But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning. Think, for instance, of the two distinct but related senses of 'informative.' Several of this year's most valuable essays are informative in both senses; they are at once informational and instructive. That is, they serve as models and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways - ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.

Although there are some differences between what Wallace and I consider valuable, the Decidering process detailed in his essay is a dead-on description of what I do on kottke.org every day. I guess you could say that it resonated with me as valuable, so much so that were I editing an end-of-the-year book comprised of the most interesting links from 2007, I would likely include it, right up front.

Oh, and I got a kick out of the third footnote, combined here with the associated main text sentences:

I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering is interesting in all kinds of different ways. For example, from the perspective of Information Theory, the bulk of the Decider's labor actually consists of excluding nominees from the final prize collection, which puts the Decider in exactly the position of Maxwell's Demon or any other kind of entropy-reducing info processor, since the really expensive, energy-intensive part of such processing is always deleting/discarding/resetting.

My talk at Ars Electronica 2006 on the topic of simplicity touched on similar themes and the main point was that the more stuff I can sift through (and throw away), the better the end result can be.

From this it follows that the more effective the aggregator is at effectively determining what the group thinks, the better the end result will be. But somewhat paradoxically, the quality of the end result can also improve as the complexity of the group increases. In constructing kottke.org, something that I hope is a simple, coherent aggregation of the world rushing past me, this complexity is my closest ally. Keeping up with so many diverse, independent, decentralized sources makes my job as an aggregator difficult -- reading 300 sites a day (plus all the other stuff) is no picnic -- but it makes kottke.org much better than it would be if I only read Newsweek and watched Hitchcock movies. As artists, designers, and corporations race to embrace simplicity, they might do well to widen their purview and, in doing so, embrace the related complexity as well.

Welcome the chaos because there's lots of good stuff to be found therein. I also attempted to tie the abundance of information (what Wallace refers to as "Total Noise") and the simplification process of editing/aggregating/blogging into Claude Shannon's definition of information and information theory but failed due to time contraints and a lack of imagination. It sounded good in my head though.

Anyway, if you're wondering what I do all day, the answer is: throwing stuff out. kottke.org is not so much what's on the site as what is not chosen for inclusion.

[1] In actual fact, I closed that browser tab weeks ago and pasted the URL into a "must-read items" text file I maintain. But it's been open in a browser tab in my mind for months, literally. That and I couldn't resist putting a footnote in this entry, because, you know, DFW.

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