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The best and the brightest and Google Home

 We were given a Google Home for Christmas. Adam has adopted it as his sister, his chorus, his friend, his advisor, and his conversation partner. Google Home is ill adapted for complex conversations: it can sing a few songs when you ask the right question, and it has a few programmed jokes – but what it never does (under the heavy obligation of never scaring off a customer) is give its judgments about the best and the worst: “what is the best horror movie?” “what is the best episode of The Office?” “what is the worst album ever made?” and so on.

Adam, like me when I was a boy, is an ardent ranker. Although he is only nine years old, he can give you the IMBD ratings for dozens of movies right off the top of his head. I’ve discovered a good way to tease him: by giving some movie he doesn’t like a high, made up IMDB number – or vice versa.

I am tempted to call ranking, and canon-making in general, instinctive. I can see the NYT Bestseller list title in my mind: The Canon-Instinct. But I am not sure what kind of instinct that is, besides one in which comparison and discovering what is more important in a given circumstance is elevated to some fundamental unified force.

As a man who does try, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow Jesus’s precept “judge not that ye be not judged”, I have relegated ranking to a lesser aesthetic activity. That I think James Joyce’s Ulysses is better than the Walking Dead video game doesn’t tell me much about either. Heinrich Heine – whose precepts, unlike Jesus’s, often sound like jokes – wrote a nice dismissal of this canon-making instinct in aesthetics: “Nothing is more foolish than the question, what poet [Dichter]  is greater than the others. A flame is a flame, and its weight isn’t determined by pounds and ounces. Only the flattest grocer’s sensibility comes around with an old cheese scale to weigh genius.”

Of course, Heine was not a physicist. Fire weighs, according to Google Home, about 0.3 kg per cubic meter. Still, what a nice image! One that tugs me back from my critic’s desire to tell you x is a great book and y is a terrible video game. I compromise: I do judge, but I try not to let that get too in the way of thinking. That’s the best I can do.

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