Context is King

I watched a video last week about Librivox.  It’s a free audiobook app that provides access to public domain books.  It’s a great app and a great service, no question.  The video was addressing literacy, not in the rote context of being able to read, but in the act of reading and in the pursuit of the goal of being well-read.  The speaker’s thesis was that any book – and certainly books that survived into public domain like those on Librivox – has something you can take away from it.  Even if it is a disagreement with the author, it is of value.  Cool.

And look, before I begin, I don’t want to sound like I’m disputing that goal.  People should read more, no doubt.  And that isn’t just the author who writes professionally saying that.  That’s the national and world citizen, who knows reading – much like traveling – is a cure for prejudice, ignorance, and so many of the world’s ills.

But the thing about reading is that it is art and art is meant to be consumed in context.  Take Charles Dickens as an example.  Most people dislike Dickensian writing because, well, it’s boring as well.  It’s slow-moving, it doesn’t make sense, it contradicts itself often, and it repeats itself endlessly.  Valid arguments to be sure, and only the tip of the iceberg.  But part of this disdain for Dickens comes from the context in which he is read.  Teachers force this book or books into our hands and make us dissect it.  We read the story as a whole, and sometimes all on one night the day before the test.  But that’s not how Dickens intended his stories to be read.

Dickens was a serialist for most of his literary career.  He was writing these stories for news paper circulation.  This is part of why the stories can seem so redundant.  He was catching up his readers on who everyone was because they hadn’t read the story in a week (or more).  And it’s not like they had reruns, or even readily-available collections of his work.

MR James is another figure.  A giant in English ghost stories, he wrote many short stories and books, quite a few of which have been adapted into other media.  His stories often seem rather tame to our ears today, sort of like a diet version of Edgar Allan Poe.  What can be missed is the context in which his stories were meant to be consumed.  The reading of ghost stories is (or was) a tradition in England when MR James lived.  He wrote stories to be read Christmas Eve while surrounded by family.  As such, they were spooky but not quite scary.  They were unsettling but not all together horrible.  They read like the Hallmark Channel of horror stories because they are just that: stories to read with Grandma and Uncle Bill and Little Susy.

Marvel Comics and DC Comics both dealt with this issue.  In the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books (1930s through 1960s), comic books were meant to be dime-store entertainment.  You bought a comic, read it, enjoyed it, and that was the end of it.  They weren’t meant to be deep tomes of consistent narratives.  They were intended to be stand-alone one-shot stories that were consumed with ease.  Our modern approach to comic books, with complex mythologies and dense backstories, are far and away departed from the works of Stan Lee and Bill Finger.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all, as all art should evolve.  And yet, it becomes important to understand where and how these stories evolved to understand the tonal issues at play between the generations.

We see this in fine art, as well.  We look at a picture of a famous master and go ‘huh’ and move on.  We do that because we are looking at it on a computer screen.  When we see it in a gallery, and we grasp the size of it?  It’s a whole other story.  The magic of jazz is rarely captured on albums; the performances must be seen live.  Hell, the Grateful Dead’s reputation was built largely by being a live band, with their formal album releases often paling considerably compared to their live recordings.

Context is important in a lot of other fields besides art.  In martial arts and self-protection, we have this come up all the time.  The age-old question of ‘does this work on the street’ gets passed to martial arts instructors on probably a daily basis.  But the question quickly falls apart when you dissect that.  What street?  Who are you using it again?  Why is the fight taking place?  The details become important.  And this isn’t to nitpick and ruin the question with pedantic overthought, but to confront the reality that there is no ‘street’.  Physical altercations are varied and each is unique.  There are surprisingly few situations that are common, even among people in violent careers (soldiers, police, bouncers, bodyguards, etc).

This even comes up in things like math and science.  In statistics, you have the principle of statistical significance, which is whether or not a datum contributes to a pattern or is merely an outlier.  Ronald Fisher is credited for establishing the value of statistical significance, which is one in twenty or 0.05% (if a value occurs less than one out of twenty times, then it is often viewed as an outlier).  What many people do not know, including some statisticians, is that Fisher never intended One-in-Twenty to be the hard rule of statistical significance.  The Royal Society of London, one of the biggest names in science, were attempting to writing a new book on all things math.  They wanted a hard-and-fast rule and they went to Fisher to get it.  Fisher was badgered on the matter over a period of months, refusing to lay it down, insisting that statistical significance could not be so concretely and adamantly set.  Finally, one morning, they came to him at his home and demanded a value.  An older gentleman at this time, Fisher allegedly screamed “One in twenty” before slamming the door in their face.  Thus, our mathematically established value for statistical significance was set largely by a bunch of nerds harassing an old man until he gave them a value.

These are more than amusing anecdotes.  And this is more than pure appreciation.  If facts are knowledge, then understanding the context of facts is wisdom.  Words cannot express how much I support people reading more.  And if an audio book app like Librivox is the easiest and best way for you to read more, then do it and don’t hesitate.  But I would be lying if I said I did not feel some sense of pause over the idea of hearing a tale that was deliberately meant to be read.

Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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