Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson: 'magical moments of discovery'

"I literally started to tear up, like in the library, as I was reading this...and everybody's looking at me like why is that guy crying over that old book.."

I was researching this book, "The Ghost Map," and there are these two characters, it's true story based on this cholera outbreak in London in the 1850s, and there are these two characters who kind of come together to help solve the mystery, in a sense, of where cholera is coming from, John Snow and Henry Whitehead.  And one of the things that I wanted, as an author, to happen was for Snow and Whitehead to become friends out of this kind of alliance on the streets of London, but I had no evidence of it and so narratively, I really wanted to be able to say, "and then they became friends for life and it was this wonderful thing."  But I couldn't do that because it was a true story and I didn't have any evidence.

Until finally, in the New York Public Library, I found that this very obscure autobiography that Whitehead had written, that I couldn't find anywhere else.  And in it, there's this line where Whitehead says, "you know after this, these heady two weeks we spent together, we became friends and a portrait of John Snow remained in my library for the rest of my life to remind me of those fateful days."

And I literally started to tear up, like in the library, as I was reading this, like, they were friends! They were friends! And everybody's looking at me like why is that guy crying over that old book.

So it was that kind of magical moment of  discovery that really are so great about libraries. 

I grew up in D.C. and we used to go to the local library around the corner and then in college and in grad school I just an amazing amount of time  just hanging out, I mean did the old activity of walking through the stacks, which of course, it's hard to do these days. Those were really building up that kind of love for books just from seeing them all kind of lined up like that. That was a big part of my education

But partially I think about it as, you know, two things.  There's the research and the books and then there's also the physical, kind of social space of the library.  At Brown, I went to college at Brown and there was just, you know, a fantastic kind of scene at the library.  It was a place you went to discover new ideas, but also just can spend time with other people. And having that kind of like intellectual mix as a kind of a social hub at the same time, was really kind of intoxicating.

Well we now live in California and I one of our favorite things to take our kids to, there's this wonderful library in Mill Valley, set in a Redwood grove. And it's one of the most beautiful libraries I've ever been to and it's just kind of the local library. And you go in there and you find books and you sit there and there are these beautiful windows looking out over the Redwoods and it's a really it's a magical space to pass that library experience on to our kids. It's really important to us. What's so important about a library is the sense of, and about librarians, is the sense of the information filter and navigation that library science is all about. 

You know, we obviously live in this age where there is more and more information and the skills we need to navigate through all that information are increasingly important.  And the people who are best trained, and the spaces that are best designed to help us learn those skills are clearly libraries.  

So to think about kind of cutting back those budgets, just because we're moving to a more of an online world, I think is just really short-sighted.  

[On censorship] Well, it's interesting. I just read Salman Rushdie's memoir, Joseph Anton.   It's an extraordinary  story, but, you know, it's a reminder of  the power that the book continues to have,  right. That these books can still, in this day, be so combustible and controversial and strike fear in the hearts of  certain established powers. 

I think that's a great testimony to importance of books in our culture to this day.  I mean I often have people come to me, and because I've written so much  about the Internet and written about video games and other things and they're like, "Why are you still writing books if you're so interested in all this new technology." And it always seems like a bizarre question, because if you're trying to influence people, if you're trying to win people over to a complex new idea, there's clearly no better form for it, which is why when people have ideas that challenge orthodoxies, and they present them in book form, they get in trouble.

I think that they are almost always the wrong thing to do (censor books). You know, it's better to, if you disagree with the idea, it's better to write your own book, right, than to try stop people from reading a book that's already out there. 

Well I've just finished his book, "Future Perfect," which is my first real book about politics which is talking about kind of open collaborative networks and their power and building out alot of themes from some of my earlier books and we are just starting working on a on a TV series for PBS, based on  a number of my books and I'm gonna write a kind a companion book for that series, so that's what I'm starting to work on.  

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Book Title: 

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Library Name: 

New York Public Library