It’s common these days to micromanage what information we receive. Many of us have a list of favorite Web sites and blogs we regularly go to, as well as Facebook pages and mobile apps that reflect our individual tastes and ideologies. It’s a way of maintaining some level of control amid the chaos of the Internet.
There’s an opportunity cost, however, to micromanaging this flow of information: We rarely experience the joy of what I call “bumping into knowledge.”
That’s why I want to tell you about my all-time favorite Web site, Arts & Letters Daily (aldaily.com).
This is not really a Web site. It’s more of a playground for human thought, a garden of fascinating ideas, a cocktail party for the incurably curious.
The site is wonderfully ugly. There are no cool images or graphics, just columns of words … striking, original words that are like mental speed bumps.
And, thank God, it’s not interactive. There are no inane comments from rabid and angry readers. It’s a one-way freeway of intellectual delights — they serve, we savor.
As many as 15 topic areas are listed on its masthead: philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, trends, breakthroughs, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, disputes and, yes, even gossip.
The home page features three column headings: Articles of Note, New Books, and Essays and Opinions. Under each heading is a series of brief blurbs, each one linking to an article from a broad range of publications, many I’d never heard of before discovering the site.
There are no ideological or topical boundaries. The only boundary seems to be: Is this a smart and fresh read?
The site is curated daily, which means you’re guaranteed a daily dose of brain food.
Just to give you a sense of what it feels like to be on the site, here’s a sampling of some thoughts and ideas you’re likely to encounter on any given day:
“A modern Marx. Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to confine the man to his milieu misses the point. Marx’s ideas shape our world …”
“Technology confounds Sven Birkerts. What happens when this not-quite Luddite goes for a ride with Siri? A transcendental experience ensues …”
“Albert Camus’s writings on the Algerian war are marked by their honesty, consistency, even purity. His peers — Sartre, de Beauvoir, Aron — were cynical at best …”
“ ‘Never before has anti-Semitism been so eliminationist in its rhetoric,’ says Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, ‘not even the Nazi period.’ Chilling. But is it true?”
“Before Soho was boho, there was Covent Garden. Its theaters, bordellos, and back alleys gave rise to a modern archetype: the poverty-stricken artist …”
“The demonic Picasso. In the absence of morality, it is monstrosity that carries the weight of his work, and shakes the viewer’s beliefs …”
“Could humans — so fractious and violent — forge a moral lingua franca, a unified system for weighing values? Let the metacognitive revolution begin …”
“For all of us, but especially for Generations X and Y, a sustained and quiet read is harder to get than ever. Cultural studies is to blame …”
“Income inequality will worsen, predicts Tyler Cowen, but revolution is not stirring. Our economic and social future will be a ‘hyper-meritocracy’…”
Get the picture? The site provides a constant flow of challenging ideas that hit you from all sides. Imagine that. You lose control. You are constantly surprised. You are at the mercy of a curator’s taste.
One minute, you’re reading about a critic’s outrage at “America’s cultural debasement …” the next you read about how “regret is what makes us human.”
Right after a piece on how “putting pen to paper unlocks a sort of alchemy,” you read about Michael Ignatieff, “a man who would be philosopher-king … left Harvard and reinvented himself as a politician. Or so he thought …”
AL Daily, which is owned by the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the brainchild of the late Denis Dutton, its founding editor. According to Wikipedia, Dutton was inspired by the model of the Drudge Report but wanted to reach “the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and The New Republic — people interested in ideas.”
The plain, word-heavy design of the site “mimics the 18th century English broadsheets and a 19th century copy of a colonial New Zealand periodical, the Lyttelton Times.”
The site is so intellectually rich that it even includes a little section titled “Nota Bene” (Latin for “mark well”), which offers a collection of daily links to more quirky articles.
In short, the site is the antidote to boredom and predictability. It counters the modern-day habit of finding refuge in media channels that mostly confirm what we already know and believe.
It’s comfort food, but only for those who don’t seek comfort.
In that sense, it might be the ultimate Jewish site, designed not to comfort us but to challenge us, not to reinforce us but to move us, not to change our minds but to open them.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.