Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers

Richard Powers: Galatea 2.2 

(not sure when I wrote this, late 90s?)

I don’t really know why I read. Usually i don’t even remember half the stuff that happens in a book that i read. It’s not even like i read all that quickly either. it’s more like i read a book the way I listen to a Coltrane solo. Coltrane started the idea of sheets of sound, where the individual notes were not quite as important as the flavor, the feel of the entire melodic phrase taken as a totality. Or maybe instead a better analogy is curry. you don’t notice any one particular spice, it’s the collection of spices as a whole that decide whether a curry is good or bad. 

That’s the way i read books. It’s admittedly, not the best way to read. I mean, i am horrible at remembering particular passages or events or whatever. but i don think that i get a pretty decent overall flavor from a book. I come away with something good that lingers around long enough to remind me how badly i need to find a new book when i haven’t read in a day or two. 

That’s how i came across Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers. I hadn’t read in a few weeks. I was taking a break because nothing was appealing to me. I couldn’t find anything that would leave anything but the blandest most tepid sensation on my cortex after the first few sentences. So i didn’t read for a while and then i came across Powers’ book which pretty much seeks to answer the question: why bother reading? 

i think it does a really decent job at explaining why we keep picking up book after book after book. The premise of the novel appears to be a bit on the sci-fi end if you only read the dust jacket for the book. But it’s pretty far from being sci-fi, it just so happens to use technology in an effort to answer the questions about why we read. 

Powers’ is the main character in the book, it’s got a ot of autobiographical stuff that is worked in via some pretty cool narrative technique. He is hired as a Humanities Resident at some Institution where he is given the assignment of teaching a computer how to read. The computer not only has to be able to read, but has to understand well enough to pass something called a Turing test. Meaning that the computer (who is named Helen) has to go up against a graduate student in English. The test is administered via terminal and the answers are presented to the tester who then has to tell which is the computer’s answer and which is the real human’s. Powers reads Helen pretty much everything from Beowolf to Emily Dickinson and the computer does start dealing with some pretty interesting issues w/r/t reading and writing. 

One exchange between Powers and Helen is particularly cool: Helen, in the days before the Turing test, asks Powers how many books there are. He replies by telling her that the Library of Congress contained 20 million volumes and that the number of new books published increased each year, and would soon reach a million worldwide. He continues that a person, through industry, leisure and longevity might manage to read, in one life, half as many books are published in a day. 

Helen reached the conclusion that the more days that pass, the less likely that any particular book will be read and the less likely any one of us will run into someone who can have a conversation with us about a book we’ve just read because the chances that any two people will have read the same book will diminish over time. 

Consequently, Helen asks why do humans write so much or even at all. Powers is great here because he goes back to Nabokov’s afterward to Lolita and says that humans are each pretty much trapped in their own cage, and a book ?bursts like someone else’s cell specifications.” And the difference between the two cages completes an inductive proof of thought’s infinitude. He closes the conversation with Helen with a poem that i think is by Emily Dickinson: 

There is no Frigate like a Book 

To take us Lands away 

Now any Coursers like a Page 

Of prancing Poetry– 

The Traverse may the poorest take 

Without oppress of Toll- 

How frugal is the Chariot 

That bears the Human Soul!

I pretty much highly recommend that anyone who likes reading check this book out.