Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

A few quick notes on Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. 2003 G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New Yor

It is rare that I purchase hard-cover books: the cost per word is too high, and I cannot shake the sensation of having cheated myself out of other books which could have been purchased by the difference between the hard cover and soft cover prices. But last week I bought William Gibson’s latest, Pattern Recognition, at the Strand for the traditional Strand discount of half off the cover price. There were two reasons for this purchase. First, there was an extract I read elsewhere, in which the event horizon of derivative fashion was theorized. Seemed like genius. Second, there was the title. I have always been one to judge books by their covers. The Strand, with its supposed miles of books, some used, some reviewer’s copies which have somehow not been delivered to book editors and essayists and other people in positions of power, is a lesson in this. As a writer, it’s instructive for me to see that the absolute worst of the lot, those books which begin as pristine reviewer’s copies at fifty percent discount from the cover price but, unsold, eventually migrate to the carts of dollar books on the street, have a sameness of appearance and title. Reverse-engineer the failures, and see the lessons: Never put the author’s picture on the cover of a book. Never have the author’s name bigger than the title of the book. Never have a co-author tacked on in small letters underneath, introducted by the honorific “With” in the way other people have “Dr.” and “Rev.” Never co-author with a celebrity. Never try to coin a phrase. Never make a pun; knock-offs of “fear of flying” are funny once, then tiresome. Never put a picture on the cover of someone who is not actually in the book. Never put a half-naked torso, head and face cropped out for easy objectification, on the cover. But among the packed shelves of the Strand the best method for judging the thousands of orphaned books are the titles themselves. For a while there, it seemed that everyone was trying to work in the name of someone famous, without the book actually being about that person. Lincoln, Nabakov, Einstein, someone who might lend something grander to the pathetic pulp being churned out more like television scripts and movie screenplays than novels. Must-not-buys. There’s also the weak end of the adventure travel literature, books with titles beginning, “In Search of…” My only conclusion, without reading all such books, is that they either never found what they were looking for, or when they did, it turned out to be so inconsequential they were forced to make the book more about the journey than the destination. In Search of a Publishing Deal or In Search of a Point. And there are the disguised academic texts: shiny covers, exciting titles (usually in the pattern, A Very Stodgy Thing Made Hip: Amazing but Irrelevant Facts A, B and C About It, and bearing no resemblance to the title on the work when it was presented before the thesis review board), but inside, the same turgid prose, endless footnotes, bibliographies, and rarely an unexpected conclusion, narrative thread, or even relevancy outside a tiny subset of a distant outrigger of minor subdiscipline of a formerly important major school of thought which has already begun to disappear from the curriculums of the lesser universities across the country. But my point: I liked the title of Gibson’s book, Pattern Recognition, so I bought it. It turned out to be a three-hour, inoffensive read. It’s a thirteen-dollar book with ten-dollar words and fifty cent ideas. There’s a lightness and thinness about the book: insubstantive content is the culprit. The narrative concerns Cayce Pollard, a youngish “cool hunter”—someone who attempts to identify nascent trends and who can tell with a glance whether a logo will “work” or not. She becomes entangled in a mystery of no import. “Pattern recognition” comes into play by being conflated with apophenia, a word repeated throughout, which, depending upon whether you are a neurologist, psychologist or statistician, means either seeing things where they don’t exist, recognizing objects as something they are not, or seeing patterns where patterns cannot statistically be proven to exist. Part of my disappointment in the book is self-created. I had hoped to see the concept of true pattern recognition explored more in a literary fashion by the brilliant man. I’ve long believed that, after self-delusion—a kind of willful apophenia—most of our failures as human beings stem from excess trust placed in our ability to discern the connections between events, ideas and the world around us. For most of us, a sample size of two is enough to establish a trend, and we exaggerate or understate our conclusions for effect. “I always just miss the subway.” “You never do it right.” Although the book has many examples of mis-recognized or ignored patterns, there are no lessons drawn from them. For example, we learn that the mysterious film segments do not have a narrative, but then what? Have those seeking a narrative wasted their time? Have they wasted it by discussing it endlessly online, or because they tried to re-order the segments? Does it matter? I think such attempts at piecing together meaning where no meaning exists, do matter, at least in terms of how they allow us to understand our own behavior. When our pattern-recognizing abilities succeed, they remove us from repeating mistakes, and stop the tests and trials, and we can reduce the subject of study to simple cause and reaction, creating another of the endless interlocking conditional statements which guide our behavior. But we so rarely consider negative evidence, the absence of information, that positive evidence has a dominating effect upon our conclusions. We conclude that placebo medicines work, for example. But why shouldn’t we conclude, instead, that it’s not the mind at all? If a patient takes a sugar pill three times a day with a glass of water, couldn’t it be the three glasses of water that cure the ailment? What if it’s the tipping back of the head to swallow, or the swallowing action itself, or the peristalsis of a pill of a certain shape, size and smoothness? Faulty pattern recognition—and the aforementioned willful apophenia—is the foundation of our worst failures at creating better societies, our failures at determining the motives of our enemies, and the base of our constant distrust in others. We determine others’s motives using our own faulty logical mechanisms, and they in turn, determine ours by theirs. There are no major repercussions for such failures in Pattern Recognition. … Another part of my disappointment was that I felt like I could source every one of its fifty-cent ideas: nothing you could not find in a newspaper. Given enough time and stripped of the fictional patina, the entire book could be deconstructed and traced to its primary sources: The article about the girl who visits urban kids to go through their closets and listen to them talk about why they bought and why they wear their clothes. The surge of late in the study of the humans-as-network. The move of sociological ideas into marketing and back. Anthropologists being hired to help manage corporate culture. There’s also this: although I cut the brand tags off my clothes when possible and color them in when not, and never wear logoed garments, it never occurred to me to sand the logos off the buttons of my Levis. That’s just genius.

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Grant Barrett