“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
What John McPhee and a good dictionary can teach us about writing:
John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.
The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.
Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, is on a quest to redefine what we call artificial intelligence—saying that current advancements do not go far enough to understand the human mind:
Hofstadter wanted to ask: Why conquer a task if there’s no insight to be had from the victory? “Okay,” he says, “Deep Blue plays very good chess—so what? Does that tell you something about how we play chess? No. Does it tell you about how Kasparov envisions, understands a chessboard?” A brand of AI that didn’t try to answer such questions—however impressive it might have been—was, in Hofstadter’s mind, a diversion. He distanced himself from the field almost as soon as he became a part of it. “To me, as a fledgling AI person,” he says, “it was self-evident that I did not want to get involved in that trickery. It was obvious: I don’t want to be involved in passing off some fancy program’s behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. And I don’t know why more people aren’t that way.”
I wanted in. So I did what you might expect an over-enthusiastic suburban nitwit to do, and asked my mom to drive me to the mall to buy Ivor Horton’s 1,181-page, 4.6-pound Beginning Visual C++ 6. I imagined myself working montage-like through the book, smoothly accruing expertise one chapter at a time. What happened instead is that I burned out after a week.