Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I am reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From I am enjoying it, and — while some of the examples he uses are overly familiar — I am finding myself pausing to think about how his insights apply to my experience. There is one area, though, where I completely disagree, and that particular theme relates to us. He talks about browsing, and takes on the claim made often by, well, people like me, that reading a print newspaper is a better experience than reading one online because in the print case you thumb through the pages to get to the rest of an article you started on the first page, or to jump over to another section. We print folk claim that the very fact of needing to glance at those pages increases the chance that we will stumble upon something unexpected and interesting that we had not planned to read. The leisurely stroll through a section on the way to the end brings all sorts of unexpected pleasures, insights, and opportunities for discovery.

Johnson argues that on the home page of an online newspaper there are far more links available than on the first page of a print paper — he cites one study that found 23 leads on the first print page of a New York Times and 315 links on the web version of that same page. But that dodges the issue. The whole point of the browse, the reading stroll, is that you are not going directly from the first page to the next place of interest. You are passing through other pages on the way. And here is the key point he misses — someone has constructed the sequence of articles, ads, and illustrations on the print pages. I am being asked to pass through information organized by an editorial staff — not information selected by me. I argue that it is better to be taken through that planned passage than merely to trust my interests. Just as it is better — I really mean that — to read a novel where the author selects that happens when then to read a hypertext where I can branch anywhere I want.

I bring this up in part b/c I think it is part of the problem of sending kids to do research on the net — the better their computer skills the faster they get to the one nugget of fact they are required to find. But a book is not just a compilation of discrete facts — it is journey, just as the print newspaper is. We need to show young people the value of entrusting yourself to the sequence of ideas that someone else has selected — not because it is right, or correct, but because it enlarges the student. The student sees that there are new ways of thinking, writing, researching — there is a world larger than his or her own interests. I believe we have made self-selection too important. I want Mozart, or Beethoven, or Thelonious Monk to take make through a sequence of sounds I could never have imagined putting together. I want the editors of the Times to surprise me. I want the author of a nonfiction book to take me to unexpected places. I want to browse in a world of ideas that someone else has selected and constructed — if only to argue with it (as I am with Johnson). I think we need to make the case to young people that self-selection is fine but limited — it is one pleasure, but browsing is another. They all know how to dive, to leap, from one data point to another. We need to show them how to stroll.


  1. This is a beautiful article and I love the comments about Mozart and Beethoven. I associate reading the newspaper with people and times in my life – the songs about Lazy Sundays comes to mind. This remains depsite what I learned when I sold advertsing space for a fairly decent newspaper. Advertising drives those editorial decisions about placement and selection of narratives. The publishers & editors can stand on their heads and holler that it isn’t so but it is so. Pulbic relations firms sell their services on the basis that they can get news articles into print in a certain location. Even the arts sections of major magazines and newspapers defer to their advertisers. Then, too, even the NYT has more and more freelancers – many of whom are attorneys – which has interesting implications. A colleague once told me that she read the Times largely for the advertisements . Since she is a very intelligent woman, this gave me pause. I now think about the juxtaposition of the large ( expensive ) ads and the narrative. I cannot help wonder what subconscious effect the advertisements have on my perception of the news stories. I am not an expert on this matter but it is worth exploring. Remember Simon and Garfunkle’s Silent Night and the Seven O’Clock News. Nevertheless, the newspaper conjures up all sorts of wonderful associations: smell of coffee, the taste of hot chocolate, alone in my office , relaxing with family, doing the puzzle, striking up conversations with strangers on the bus…

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    a very bright friend of mine who worked in television once told me that all the criticisms people make of bad programming is based on a misperception of what TV shows are — shows, he explained, are time between commercials. the network is about the commercials, the shows are filler to get you from one to the other. There was a beautiful clarity in that formulation — which reminds me of your description of newspapers.