Roy Christopher on Working Through Personal Upheaval and the Mind-Altering Ideas In James Gleick’s “Chaos”
About the interviewee: Roy Christopher marshals the middle between Mathers and McLuhan. He is currently a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication at The University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the Adjunct Faculty at Loyola University Chicago, as well as a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is working on two books: One is a media-archaeological dig called The Medium Picture, and the other is about hip-hop and cyberpunk. It’s called Floating Signifiers and is under contract with Repeater Books. RoyChristopher.com is where he thinks aloud about all of the above.
“The book changed my life.”
Gino: Do you remember how you discovered Chaos?
Roy: I didn't find Chaos until the fall of 1997, ten years after its original publication. One Sunday afternoon, I caught a PBS special on fractal geometry. It was called Fractals: The Colors of Infinity and was hosted by Arthur C. Clarke. The hour-long show featured tons of other scientists and mathematicians, only a few of whom I had heard of at the time. I found it baffling in the best way. The next day at work I asked my coworker Steve McCann if he knew anything about fractal geometry, and he said, “I have a book for you.” He loaned me James Gleick’s Chaos.
Gino: What were your first impressions of the book?
Roy: Once I started reading it, I knew I had to get my own copy. My life while reading Chaos went through a total upheaval. The start-up company I was working for was purchased and shut down, I broke up with my girlfriend of six years, and I moved from Seattle to San Francisco to work as Slap Skateboard Magazine’s music editor. It seemed like a dream job, and one toward which I’d been working for a long time. By the time I finished reading Chaos, though, I knew I wanted to do so much more. After a month, I left Slap and worked my way into graduate school. I hadn't been a heavy reader up to that point, but I haven’t stopped reading several books at a time since reading Chaos nearly 20 years ago.
“Once I started reading it, I knew I had to get my own copy. My life while reading Chaos went through a total upheaval.”
Gino: What version/edition of the book did you read?
Roy: The first version I had was the 1988 Viking paperback, the one with the close up, 3-D rendering of a fractal.
Gino: Does the cover art have any particular meaning for you?
Roy: It looks like a planet with water, islands, and many moons, but, according to the jacket copy it’s a Julia Set “bounding four basins on Riemann sphere”. What I remember about seeing the cover was that after watching the Arthur C. Clarke thing, I knew what a fractal was. I was in the club. Also, the very idea of chaos made it feel like a cool book to be reading.
Gino: Gleick was praised for his ability to clearly explain very complicated concepts in language that non-experts could understand. How did this influence your academic work and writing?
Roy: Chaos was a total hairpin turn in a new direction for me. If it hadn’t been written in such an accessible style, it might have alienated me, and I might have just continued complacently on my course. My shift in mindset not only included regular reading and pursuing graduate school, but also running a website about the new ideas I was learning. When I switched from making ‘zines about skateboarding, BMX, and music to making websites about new science and new media, Gleick was one of the first people I contacted. I didn't know it until years later, but he’d just gone through a horrendous plane crash and much personal loss. The first email I got from Jim was from his hospital bed at NYU’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. Hearing back from him was another push on my new path.
In my own writing, I always strive for the accessibility that Gleick achieves in all of his books. His latest, The Information, is especially adept at distilling a very large amount of history and theory into a highly readable book. In academia there’s a lot of what Dr. Katie Arens calls “writing to have written,” which can be contrasted with what she calls “writing to be read.” I try my best to do the latter. Part of that is just what I enjoy as a reader, and part of it is the lingering influence of first reading Chaos.
“In my own writing, I always strive for the accessibility that Gleick achieves in all of his books…Part of that is just what I enjoy as a reader, and part of it is the lingering influence of first reading Chaos.”
Gino: After communicating with Gleick by email while he was in the hospital, have you ever had a chance to tell him in person how much his book means to you?
Roy: I think that first email was the only time I’ve told Jim how much Chaos influenced me.
Gino: Do you maintain any contact with each other?
Roy: We've never met in person. I did interview him after his book Faster came out in 1999, and we've been in contact sporadically over the years since. He’s always been very supportive.
Gino: Both you and Gleick experienced personal difficulty and upheaval around the time you first read Chaos. Has that changed the book’s meaning for you over the years?
Roy: Well, the first tenet of chaos theory is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” more commonly known as “the butterfly effect.” Small changes at the start of any dynamical system can have huge ramifications later on. If we apply that to the time of my discovery of Gleick’s book and its content, I can’t say whether or not I’d be here talking about it now if any of those factors were different. The book changed my life.
There are many major interests and introductions that have landed me where I am now, but reading Chaos was one of the biggest bifurcations. Chaos theory was largely borne of phenomena that had been filtered out by other scientific and mathematical methods. In part it teaches you to look between things and not leave anything out. Once I started reading other books about science and media, I spent a while trying to distance myself from my past in skateboarding, BMX, ‘zine-making, and music journalism. I eventually realized that it all goes together, it all has its place. Now I refuse to choose between being nerdy and getting my hands dirty.
Gino: How many, if any, times have you re-read the book? Some interviewees will re-read a book countless times, while others will only read the book once but information will stay with them forever.
Roy: I reread it every few years, and there’s always something new in there. My understanding of the book’s concepts and their context has expanded incrementally since that initial reading. As Heraclitus once said, “you can’t step into the same river twice.”