Good Reads: From the end of books, to driverless cars, to post-traumatic growth

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes the prospect of books disappearing, how social media teaches teen boys to write, a commute in Google's driverless car, the benefits of being a polymath, how trauma can lead to great personal growth.

Tarek Mostafa/Reuters/File
A librarian in Egypt’s Alexandria library works on restoring a rare book.

The journalist Tom Wolfe once declared the novel dead, a decade or two before he himself turned to writing novels. Now we face the prospect of the book itself disappearing. Jacob Mikanowski, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, sums it up this way: “It used to be possible to imagine books disappearing in the distant future. Now it feels like even money that it’s going to happen within our lifetimes.”

So Mr. Mikanowski takes an erudite tour of the history and meaning of the book in its physical, ink on paper, manifestation. One of his interesting stops is perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall the world of literature and learning: the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. Was it burned by one of Julius Caesar’s generals while the emperor courted Cleopatra? Or Caliph Umar many centuries later who, needing only the Quran, burned the other books to heat the public baths? Or the Christian Archbishop Theophilus as historian Edward Gibbon argued? Or the more trendy suspect Queen Zenobia of Palmyra? All these

possibilities have advocates and evidence – and counterevidence, says Mikanowski. He asserts another, less glamorous, culprit: sheer neglect.

“Alexandria is a port city; papyrus, exposed to its sea air, will only last a little over a hundred years. As the centuries passed, the Ptolemys’ 500,000 scrolls simply wore away and vanished into dust.”

Learning to write on social media

As for writing itself, the rise of social media may actually have benefits. Andrew Simmons, writing for, is a high school teacher who reads more than a thousand student essays a year. He acknowledges that the digital-native generation is eroding the conventions of writing structure – from complete sentences to the use of paragraphs. Not good. But he also points to progress that he views as more basic and more important: “self-reflection and emotional honesty. For younger high school boys particularly, social networking has actually improved writing – not the product or the process, but the sensitivity and inward focus required to even begin to produce a draft that will eventually be worth editing.”

A ride in a driverless car

One young Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, commutes nearly two hours each way in his Lexus while rarely, if ever, putting his hands on the wheel. Burkhard Bilger rides with him for a long takeout in The New Yorker on the effort to make self-driving cars the market standard. That dream may still be a decade off, more for legal and liability reasons than technical ones. “The Google car drives more defensively than people do: it tailgates five times less, rarely coming within two seconds of the car ahead. Under the circumstances, Levandowski says, our fear of driverless cars is increasingly irrational. ‘Once you make the car better than the driver, it’s almost irresponsible to have him there,’ he says.”

Innovative polymaths

Robert Twigger was traveling with Bedouins in western Egypt. “When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea....” Writing in Aeon magazine, Mr. Twigger uses the experience to launch an argument against the overspecialization that the modern economy seems to demand. The polymath, he counters, with broader interests and wider knowledge, is the source of most innovation. To come up with new ideas, “you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.”

A contagion of good works

When a tragic mass shooting took the lives of several volunteer firefighters in the town of Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve last year, a man in Missouri, who had done some social media work for the Red Cross, set up a Facebook page in support of the victims. But it was after he turned the site to the specific purpose of arranging free room and board for the legions of fellow firefighters who he knew would descend on Webster for the memorials that the site really took off.

Mark Obbie, writing in the magazine Pacific Standard, tells the story of what happened then. Two women in Webster volunteered to help organize the effort. The Facebook page’s “shares” and “likes” rose to around 2 million. The nature of the comments turned from grief, anger, and gun-control debates to “How can we help?” Local businesses and residents flooded the operations with free rooms and food and more than $700,000 in cash.

“But the money was only part of the story,” Mr. Obbie writes. “For days, a contagion of good works coursed through Webster. Neighbors’ snowy sidewalks got shoveled. Strangers’ breakfasts got bought. At drive-through windows, customers insisted on paying for the car behind them, in some cases leading to hours-long chain reactions.”

Obbie’s point in this article is not just a heartwarming anecdote. It’s to note the growing evidence that trauma can, and for many does, lead to lasting growth.

“In numerous studies canvassing a great variety of traumas, researchers have found that many people, when confronted by events powerful enough to shake their core sense of the world, do indeed gain from the ordeal.”

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