One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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Einstein, non-conformity and creativity

Impudently yours

Impudently yours

What made Einstein so creative?

It was not his brain, which they literally embalmed after his death, says Walter Isaacson in his biography of the great man, which will be in the bibliography of my book. It was his utter disregard of authority, his refusal to conform.

What Einstein recognized in people like Galileo was “the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Another time, he wrote a friendĀ  that “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

“Long live impudence!” he liked to say, and practiced what he preached.

But he did so with a wry humility. He ignored conventional wisdom more than he rebelled against it. It bored him.

But the world astonished him as it usually astonishes only children but not adults. He himself attributed this child-like ability to be amazed to his late development. Because he learned about space and time later than other toddlers, he thought about these things more deeply.

Several things spring to mind randomly:

One is that Einstein (and Newton and Galileo …) represents the best and most complete refutation–and indeed indictment–of all rote learning, all Confucian/Asian education, and indeed much of traditional education full stop.

Another thought, more in tune with the theme of my book, is that even Einstein’s mental freshness could not last. Something happened to ensure that he would spend the first thirty years of his career as a rebel and the next thirty as a resister. “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” he joked.

What was this treacherous something? It’ll be in Chapter 8 of my book.