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Explorable Explanations

I found Bret Victor’s essay “Explorable Explanations” to be really inspiring. It’s a topic I’ve wrestled with often, especially during undergrad where my studies were basically doing a lot of reading and writing. Encouraging active reading, and challenging writers to aspire to this kind of writing, is a challenge that is only becoming more and more critical in this technological age.

I really appreciated Victor’s proposition that active reading is in some ways a form of play. In our own lives, we often use play as a way of understanding and testing assumptions and ideas we come across. When we want to know if we can afford that new iPhone, we might look at our finances and “play with the numbers,” as they say. My landlord would say this whenever we asked him not to raise our rent (‘gotta love Chicago). We know from child development that play is a key tool children use to grow and learn.

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.” – Vladimir Nabokov, from his essay Good Readers and Good Writers

The Nabokov quotation above adds another side to active reading (and the expectation of good writing). Play requires a certain amount of affection, or dare I say love, for details. We explore a new thing (whether it be a dataset, an idea, a physical object) by first taking in its finer points. Our brain may construct a broad sense of the thing without us realizing it, but in order to truly know something, benefit from it, or use it, we often hold it in our real or proverbial hand, and take in its details.  We fondle it. Sorry. The process of collecting the details is what reading is. Generalizing, making sense of it, organizing it, categorizing it–these all come after reading! These things are not reading.

7 comments to Explorable Explanations

  • Nancy

    Reading is, after all, the original interactive media. I have cried real tears, and laughed tears as well with a book.. not ever with a piece of what we would call interactive art/media .
    Maybe not fondling.. but certainly tasting!

  • cds313

    This reminds me of having re-watched “The Shining” after not having seen it for years. It’s one of my favorite films, particularly because it was one of the first films I watched with my dad that was a film of his choosing, and it was my first “grown up” film to watch. I was 12 years old and I pretty much fell in love with Kubrick and horror films after that.
    So…I really like “The Shining,” that’s the point of that statement but re-watching it yesterday, I realized I had forgotten all of these moments in the film, small plot points and set ups I had never seen. The beauty was in the details and I had completely skimmed over them in my previous viewings.
    Intaking any information or art, be it film, dance, literature, music, etc is a form of interaction- because we are interpreting it and responding to it- I have also cried real tears and laughed real tears with music, film, and literature.

  • Zhenzhen

    After working on a facebook fan adoption game for an eCommerce jewelry brand, I started to feel conscious about social games on internet. There are a whole army of digital branding agencies out there, working day and night to release visual designs out on the internet for two purpose: attracting attention and making people feel addicted. Bold patterns, bright color, oversized text, pictures of target audience’s family and friends are often times tools at their disposals. They turned visual design into a popularity contest.

    Pledging to not be part of the game, I started studying at ITP. I gradually noticed that my homework was gradually being filled up by bold patterns and bright colors, the same ways of design I was trying to get away from.

    I like reading, and find your discussion enjoyable. “Seeing” is only one way for us to understand each other. Often times, I almost found some of the most essential things about people impossible to be seen by the eyes. And I constantly found reading and reasoning taking me to wonderful places my eyes have failed to help me explore. Instead of turning visual designs into the next fast-food industry, there are so much we could explore in terms of using visual presentations to help people engage in deeper, more meaningful conversation about each other.

    I’d like to share a quote I found on the website of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which I have found to be a good explanation about well, pretty much all things “visual” related –

    It’s not about sound bites and who can shout loudest and who wins and who loses. It’s not about voracious consumption, bling, status or prestige…It’s about the rare opportunity to be provoked in a smart way and walk away with more questions than answers. It’s about long, sustained conversations and wondrous aesthetic experiences that are increasingly rare in the contemporary world. It’s about art that matters in really profound ways in a world in which nothing of consequence seems to matter any longer. It’s about connecting with each other and creating a richly textured, deeply meaningful life.

  • John Capogna

    We are artists, hoping to re-create the experiences we’ve had in real life or otherwise in our minds. Every once in awhile we see a new adaptation of the same story: Guy gets weighted down. Guy overcomes. Repeats cycle. Grows powerful. Develops ego. Pushes away loved ones. Feels isolated and lonely. Hits rock bottom. Has beautiful realizations about life, its purpose and meaning, love, the oneness of all things, togetherness, harmony, faith, acceptance, fanfare, confetti. Heart warmed. Charming.

    Aside form the cynical commentary of “cookie cutter filmmaking” presented here, there is a real truth to this kind of experience. We have them over and over again. We get tunnel vision, we forget to be thankful for the people in our lives who make us who we are. We pursue goals at the cost of too many missed connections and hurt feelings. We strive, we do, we feel unfulfilled. And then, there it is. That painting that sinks our stomachs but fixes our gaze. That film that makes us cry. Falling in love again. Symphonies, heart-swells, beauty. These powerful moments in life that cause us to re-learn everything we thought we knew. This is the true art. We only try to re-create these experiences for others as divine gift, that they may re-learn everything they thought they knew.

    I don’t know what this has to do with play, or reading. But it does have to do with details. And it does have to do with being taken to an instance of remembrance because of a tiny flick in my immediate past: a word I read, a thought I conjured, a connection I made.

  • Christina

    This discussion makes me think about memory. There is the action of memory – for example, as we read something we take inventory of the sentences/ideas as we go in order to understand the meaning of the piece. Or as we listen to someone teach, tell a story, vent, we take inventory of the storyline and formulate a meaning. Or if we listen to a piece of music, our minds hold on to lyrics, notes, and perhaps formulate a connection or opinion to the music.

    Then, there’s the actual somewhat tangible part of memory. What or how much do I remember about the book I read yesterday? Last month? In grade school. Some things I remember perfectly. For me, it’s usually the experience I remember. The emotions I felt while reading, listening, looking. The things I often don’t remember are the real details. The names of the characters in a novel I fell in love with and couldn’t put down. Why can’t I remember the name of the main character whose story made me laugh and cry and feel incredibly connected to? I envy people who have no trouble with retaining that sort of information. If i loved this book or movie so much, and had such a strong reaction to it why can’t i remember the details?

    I never forget what people tell me. I can remember a conversation I had with someone that I met once. But a childhood friend will ask if I remember an experience we had together 10 years ago and I might not have any clue what they are talking about. That scares me to death. What else am I forgetting? If i can’t remember things that I have done, does that mean my past is irrelevant to who I am now?

    When I was younger I remember struggling in school because it seemed like I had such a hard time memorizing facts for a history or chemistry test. Or I had to take copious notes while reading a book that I would later report on because otherwise I’d have to read it over and over again to find what I was looking for. Ironically enough, I ended up majoring in history, and I love writing. It’s a grueling process while I’m in it, but it gives me great satisfaction once it’s done. Maybe it’s important that we force ourselves to do the things that challenge us the most. As Ben pointed out, the technological age we live in allows us to get away with writing and even reading very little.

    I’m not sure this has anything to do with what “Explorable Explanations” is really about, but that’s the reaction I had to it! This is art school, after all.

  • Kathryn "Adee"

    When I read this essay I immediately thought of my mother, the middle school biology teacher. She teaches Regents biology (a state standardized test that has recently been updated to require a passing grade by all). She said to me once, that she can teach them the concepts and get them to internalize the information with more hands on approaches, but when it comes to the standardized tests and reading comprehension everything falls apart. A student with poor traditional reading skills may know the answer, but they might not know what the question is asking. The state tests are notorious for not asking a simple question in the most strait forward manner. I wonder what the implications would be for the teaching process (interactive textbooks and research labs), reading comprehension, and perhaps even reworking the way tests are administered.

    p.s. I wrote this response about a week ago, I ran it past my mother the teacher last night. Her basic response was well what if the kids don’t to begin with? I am not sure these methods will intrigue an apathetic student/reader.

  • Nancy

    Just another 2cents:
    1) I really like this discussion’s focus on details. That’s what makes a) good stories b/c the mega stories are pretty much one of 10 (or so) possible. A German writer in the 19th century said 36 stories, but others have streamlined the count. It’s sad when my grandfather dies, but not much new anyone can tell you about death.But the details will make the story work and also b) that’s what makes products, projects, art work stand out. As the zen would say “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

    And Zhenzhen… I love this: “Often times, I almost found some of the most essential things about people impossible to be seen by the eyes. And I constantly found reading and reasoning taking me to wonderful places my eyes have failed to help me explore. “