The public sphere is crucial to the intellectual, though its fragile structure is undergoing an accelerated process of decay. The nostalgic question, ‘Where have all the intellectuals gone?’ misses the point. You can’t have committed intellectuals if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to.
Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter…. So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?
Ironically, it was over on Twitter that I saw my friend Erika Hall, author of Just Enough Research, thinking out loud about how every big tech company in America should house a small independent bookstore that’s also open to the public. (She got to thinking about bookstores, browsing, and what I call “the serendipity of the stacks” when she came across a book about Nazi resistance while browsing a bookstore in Gatwick airport.)
I’ve cut and pasted a few of her tweets, below.
We’ve been talking a lot about the need to infuse more humanities and greater diversity of perspectives and inclusion of underrepresented groups in techbusiness before we build SuperBiased Skynet. In addition to changing hiring practices, we need more bookshops.
If tech companies have space for quinoa bars and rosé taps, they have space for airport-sized bookshops.
I’ve been inside a lot of these very nice buildings and campuses, and it is striking how similar the culture is from one to another for being supposed hubs of innovation.
Any tech company that cares about their employees’ bodies enough to have a chef and a gym, should also offer something for the mind. Imagine how it changes the recruiting conversation to say “we have an onsite independent bookstore” as one of the amenities.
There are different ways to do this: 1) Hire a librarian and have an elementary-school library themed lounge. (with scooter parking) 2) Get someone like Books Inc to set up and send money back out to a local business. More points for putting it on the ground floor for the public.
[A bookshop] is a way to support the local community both monetarily and culturally, and promote intermingling with non-coworkers.
And hey, you want social activities that don’t center alcohol and are maybe even, gasp, family friendly? Have them in the bookstore.
Such an interesting idea. (Erika started a hashtag — #books2tech — if you want to add your thoughts.)
[A] number of Bell’s top executives, led by W. D. Gillen, then president of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, had begun to worry about the education of the managers rising through the company’s hierarchy. Many of these junior executives had technical backgrounds, gained at engineering schools or on the job, and quite a few had no college education at all. They were good at their jobs, but they would eventually rise to positions in which Gillen felt they would need broader views than their backgrounds had so far given them.
The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises.
They basically came up with a liberal arts program: visits to museums, orchestra concerts, architecture tours, guest lecturers (W.H. Auden! Lewis Mumford!), reading programs, and eight three-hour seminars devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses.
At the end of the 10-month course, an anonymous questionnaire was circulated among the Bell students; their answers revealed that they were reading more widely than they had before — if they had read at all — and they were more curious about the world around them. At a time when the country was divided by McCarthyism, they tended to see more than one side to any given argument.
What’s more, the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”
Of course, Bell withdrew their support for such a humanistic education when the executives started to turn, well, more human.
“[W]hile executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities.”
So it goes.