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- 3 Bruce Joshua Miller d Introduction T his remarkable collection of thirteen original essays presents an engaging mix of writers—novelists, historians of science and literature, journalists, and a filmmaker—who explore, in a personal and informal way, the excitement or disappointment of scrutinizing books, periodicals, photographs, and other documents in libraries, conducting face-to-face interviews, or wandering obscure and lonely patches of geography in the course of their nondigital research projects . In addition to accounts of research done in support of published books or a completed film, Curiosity’s Cats includes essays about research heretofore unsung, done in a spirit of pure inquiry or for reasons only the essayist can explain. In “To Understand You Must Break In,” fiction writer Steve Yates remembers the boyhood summer day he accidentally destroyed his family’s “prized Curtis Mathes television set.” From that moment on he was free to explore the world around him, “the miracle of the public library and the vigorous society of a neighborhood full of children,” a season of adventures that led him toward fiction writing. Such a message would be anathema to the digital acolytes of our present era, when students at all levels (not to mention many parents) find screens of various dimensions commanding much of their attention . Students sleep with their smartphones, text during classes, and research term papers by clicking in the search field of our One True Church of Inquiry. In his 2013 presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, William Cronon shared observations on his students’ approaches to research and their reading habits: One of my deepest fears about this brave new digital world has to do with reading itself . . . It seems to me that the book-length monograph on which our discipline has long relied is very much at risk as texts curiosity’s cats - 4 migrate from paper to screens . . . My deeper fear comes from watching my own students, many of whom no longer read books for pleasure. If they have any prior experience doing research, almost all of it is online. If a piece of information cannot be Googled, it effectively does not exist for them . . . In a manically multitasking world where even e-mail takes too long to read, where texts and tweets and Facebook postings have become dominant forms of communication, reading itself is more at risk than many of us realize. Or, to be more precise, long-form reading is at risk: the ability to concentrate and sustain one’s attention on arguments and narratives for many hours and many thousands of words. As three-year-olds fix their vulnerable eyes on iPads and children shun the creativity of outdoor play for online games, the cats of this volume provide a healthy corrective to the presumptions of the wired world. One of these presumptions is that everything an educator or student or scholar needs is available through the Internet, an opinion apparently shared by Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan and many school superintendents as they champion reliance on computer technology for classroom teaching. Such digital advocacy carries the smug certainty that anyone raising objections to the unbridled growth of technology is a Luddite, an ignoramus, a fool, or a fuddy-­ duddy. Despite the unqualified embrace of the digital revolution by many people in positions of authority, legitimate concerns of all sorts have been raised about the physical and psychological effects of the unrestricted use of wireless devices, particularly by children. My point is that one cannot discuss the convenience and benefits of the digital access many of us enjoy without including the social, political , and environmental consequences of our device-centered world. The reliance on coal and nuclear power by major online services, the proliferation of toxic waste in the form of discarded cell phones and computer equipment, and the withdrawal from society fostered by technology that Sherry Turkle has written about (“The Flight from Conversation,” New York Times, April 22, 2012) are just a few examples of the unhappy reality behind the sleek edifice of our ubiquitous screens. My purpose in this introduction is not to frame a lengthy indictment of our misplaced technophilia (and I do not speak for the writers included in this volume) but, in part, to draw attention to an oppo- introduction - 5 sitional dimension residing within this book. Nonetheless, many of the essays discuss the invaluable resources offered online. Fact checking my own essay, “The Mad Bomber Guy,” based on research I began more...


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