Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The many characters in Smarter Than You Think

One of the cool, unexpected outcomes of reading Smarter Than You Think with the students in my literature course has been the process of occasionally discussing Clive Thompson as a literary artist, not only a journalist.  In particular, because we've covered Thompson in the company of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Ralph Ellison, we've been inclined to discuss how the author of Smarter Than You Think foreshadows, sets a scene and tone, and most notably, introduces and develops "characters."

Actually, what Thompson has done by introducing us to so many characters in his book about technology has been the topic that we've returned to again and again. We've encountered an M.I.T. professor who coordinated a complex video system to record every moment of his newborn's first year. We've followed some, ummm, interesting life loggers. We began with chess players who teamed up with computers. We checked out a Kenyan-born activist blogger.  We were introduced to this thoughtful Breaking Bad fan jcham979.

Listen: I've just barely touched the tip of the ice-berg. Thompson has introduced us to dozens of characters and connected their subplots to this larger conversation about technology. Two or three or ten of the people we've encountered in the book are like us or someone we know. That seemingly personal connection, I think, is part of what drives our interest as readers.

I was pleased to see this guy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, show up in the book. A couple of years ago, I was on Coates's blog when Thompson dropped in to ask some questions for a book he was working on at the time. That book, of course, became Smarter Than You Think.

I've been intrigued that the issue of characters became so pronounced in part because of the context (a literature course) in which my students and I read and discussed Thompson's book. I'm simultaneously covering Thompson's book online with a group of students not in my class, and we've been less interested in characters, plot lines, and Thompson as a writer. By contrast, in the literature course, even though none of the students are English majors, the course somehow prompts us to highlight literary qualities concerning Smarter Than You Think.

How might we view Thompson's book if I read it in my African American literature class? In a Black Studies course? A computer science class? Some other realm?

The first major paper assignments are due soon. I'm curious how our discussions of a journalist as a literary artist might inspire students to view themselves as writers.

Reading Smarter Than You Think

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