Friday, July 9, 2010

Brooks, books and writing

Interesting column today by David Brooks in the New York Times. He points out that children who have many books around at home tend to do better in school. Unfortunately, this important observation is conveyed in a very sloppy sentence: "We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better."

• Question 1: longer and better than what? than dolphins? than mice? than adults who go back to school?
• Question 2: exactly 500 books? That's going to spell trouble for those poor kids who grow up in academic households (like ours) with thousands of books!

You'd think that someone who is trying to emphasize the importance of the written word would exercise some basic care with his own writing. Coincidentally, there is an interesting article in the New Republic this week about why David Brooks is a pretty poor columnist overall.

I'm also not quite convinced by Brooks' argument in his column that the world of printed books is hierarchical with some kind of logical flow from bottom to top (in quality), whereas the internet is not. One can use the world of printed books intelligently or poorly, just as one can use the internet well or stupidly. The main difference is that book publishers traditionally impose an initial filter, but of course with self-publishing this difference may well be shrinking.

(Unrelated note: also fun in the New Republic today, a collection of some of the most ludicrous political program items of state Republican parties. Some of those who drafted those programs would definitely benefit from some additional book- or internet-learning!)

19 comments:

  1. "Longer and better" than (presumably) kids that did NOT grow up in a home with 500 books.

    However, you are right in that his reporting is sloppy, as is typical when the media reports on studies. If you click through to the 27-country study linked, it's obvious he pulled the 500 from the graph because it's the end of the x-axis. Truly, the curve is fairly asymptotic, and after about 100 books there's not much more gain.

    He also paints the impression that all you'd have to do to give your kids scholarly success is raid a few yard sales to fill your bookshelves, when the real causation is probably parents who like to read have lots of books, and are more likely to read to their kids, who are then more likely to develop their own reading habits.

    His whole postulation that having books makes you feel scholarly seems quite a stretch.

    I like your point about internet usage - a large portion of how I use the internet is as a reference tool, whether to discover information or to retrieve information the internet has rendered as no longer required to memorize.

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