Soup Questions

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Soup Questions

Something has been bothering me. At the first meeting of my class in Theory of Technical Communication, the introductions were a bit strange. Though I only knew about 20 percent of the class, there was an air of tacit assumption that everyone knew me, by reputation at least. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’d like to think it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure. My professors sometimes come up with new coinages as well— last semester a text (The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan) was called “Jeffian.” The adjective, the way I understand it, was meant to mean that the author latches onto a seemingly insignificant detail or mundane object and runs with it endlessly, through a loop of history and theory, and then back again.

Around halfway through the class, the instructor remarked:

“Nobody reads the manual of Microsoft Word for fun— regardless of what you might think— not even Jeff.”

It occurred to me that I’d never read a software manual, with the exception of Adobe PhotoShop, because most software is fairly intuitive. The point was simple though— people read manuals to extract information they need.

I’m not sure if the comment was a positive one— in reference to my tendency to read nearly anything— or a negative one— as in, Jeff is such a total geek that he reads manuals. But the more I think about it, the more I think my reading pattern fits with a typical technical manual user. I read to answer “soup questions.”

For anyone who may have forgotten Finding Forester, Sean Connery chastises Rob Brown for asking him if he goes outside: “That isn’t a soup question is it— it fails the basic criteria of a question in that it does not solicit information that is important to you.” I seldom read for pure entertainment value— I never have. I read because the text I’m considering contains something that I think will be useful to me— just like the person who reads tech manuals.

Regardless whether it’s the back of a cereal box, a novel, a poem, or a dense book of linguistic theory— I read to answer soup questions. I read to find out things that are important to me. I suspect I write for much the same reason— to find things out, not to entertain anyone else. Entertainment is a rather nice side effect of some of these questioning excursions; I’m not opposed to it, I just seldom have the time. I’ve got too many things that I want to know, too many things that are useful to me.