Computational Precision, Almost (Rhetoric of Computation #2)

from The New York Times, Feb 9, 2010

A Calculus of Writing, Applied to a Classic

By Larry Rohter
Published: February 9, 2010

In person, Mr. [Zachary] Mason is extremely soft-spoken and tends to talk in a flat, unemotional tone, though he does note with regret that he “turned down Google two weeks before their I.P.O.” (He’s now employed at a Silicon Valley start-up.) He approaches literature almost as if it were a branch of science, governed by laws that are quantifiable and predictable, as when he talks of devising an algorithm, later discarded, to determine an optimum chapter order for his novel or when he compares writing to the annealing of metals.

“What I’m interested in scientifically is understanding thought with computational precision,” he explained. “I mean, the romantic idea that poetry comes from this deep inarticulable ur-stuff is a nice idea, but I think it is essentially false. I think the mind is articulable and the heart probably knowable. Unless you’re a mystic and believe in a soul, which I don’t, you really don’t have any other conclusion you can reach besides that the mind is literally a computer.”

As a result, The Lost Books also came to the attention of Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus. After acquiring rights to republish the book, he and Mr. Mason set about fashioning version 2.0 of the novel, which is two chapters shorter, drops the tongue-in-cheek author’s biography in which Mr. Mason described himself as a “professor of Archaeocryptography and Paleomathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford” and also eliminates the original preface and appendix.

“I think you could see his artificial-intelligence training more in the apparatus for the first edition, and that has sort of been expunged, in a way,” Mr. Galassi said. “There were some things that seemed overly complicated and distanced the reader from the magic of the storytelling itself. This way, without the protective layering he didn’t really need, you’re really dealing with the myths more immediately.”

thanks to jw

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