Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Up late

I’m up, trying to get ahead of my Red Herring commitments before the week begins for real (in seven hours and counting), and also sitting in my daughter’s room while she goes back to sleep (she was awoken by a bad dream, possibly involving a panda bear).

A couple mornings ago, as I was getting ready to go to work, and thinking about the many tasks I had to deal with that day, I was struck– almost physically– with the memory of sitting in a chair, reading something really deep and difficult, having the kind of life where I could devote days to reading a single complex work. It suddenly felt a world away, and a sad absence from my life.

It’s not that my current work is unsatisfying, or that I don’t get to think about interesting stuff. But while I deal with many of the same questions in my Institute work that I dealt with in my scholarship, it’s work that is defined by completely different challenges. The details of the craft are very different. These days, the challenge is to stay on top of a vast amount of new information, to see patterns in lots of data, to take masses of raw information and reduce it all to something analytically complex and robust, then take that and reduce it to something easy to read (but which still subtly communicates the hidden depths behind it). That feeling of sinking into a text– of exploring it and taking it apart, trying to figure out why it was put together the way it was, and how I would put it together were I the author– is one that I rarely get to enjoy these days.

Likewise, my Red Herring column is a great thing, but it’s not the same. I’m getting paid to exercise a new sort of literary voice, which is an admirable position to be in; but once again, there’s a sense of urgency to it that makes it harder to think as deeply as I would always like. (Not that I’m always on the edge of profundity with my work; but I’d like to get closer more often.)

Donald Knuth, the great computer scientist, once said that he didn’t need to be “on top of things” in his work. Here’s the exact quote:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

That “uninterruptible concentration” is what I miss.

A while ago I realized that I had to put my ambitions to write another book on hold, because the demands of young fatherhood were too great. I could take it back up, I reasoned, after my youngest had started nursery school, and life got a little easier logistically. I think that’s still going to be true; but I suspect that, once I can arrange my life so that I can carve out a couple hours a day to devote to Serious Reading, I’m going to find it’s a greater pleasure to return to such reading and writing than I ever expected.

It may also prove possible to do more of it in my job.

1 Comment

  1. I know the feeling.

    Administration, teaching, applications, family (three kids). Recently, I felt: great, I can read for several hours, when I thought about the prospects of travelling to a meeting in Stockholm.

    See to it that you get to do some reading and/or writing every day, even if it is just for 30 minutes, was a tip I got from a colleague. Guess there’s something to it.

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