Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I came across this article this morning in my blog reader (and the fact that that is where I found it is funny to me-- you'll see why when you read it).

I am not only linking to it, but re-posting here [what is in blue is quoted material]:

There’s a lot going on in George Packer’s condescending post about Twitter, but I think this is his core point:
Here’s another: Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic’s very good politics blogger, was asked by Michael Kinsley to describe his typical day of information consumption, otherwise known as reading. Ambinder’s day begins and ends with Twitter, and there’s plenty of Twitter in between. No mention of books, except as vacation material via the Kindle. I’m sure Ambinder still reads books when he’s not on vacation, but it didn’t occur to him to include them in his account, and I’d guess that this is because they’re not a central part of his reading life.
And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head.
This is all correct, and yet despite his protestations to the contrary, it just amounts to Packer offering a luddite argument. The life of a prosperous American man circa 1960 was pretty good. No risk of starvation, no idiocy of rural life, decent job stability, etc. For your leisure time you have many books to enjoy, can listen to records (or the radio), go to the movies, or watch one of three television networks. Plenty of social problems around, but nobody was writing about “the crisis of the under-entertained American” or anything like that. And yet just consider the volume of new books that have been written in the past 50 years. Just consider the volume of new good books that have been written in the past 50 years. And yet the earth still revolved around its axis in 24 hours and around the globe in 365 days. All those new books represent a loss of time available to read all the great pre-1960 books. Less Hamlet, less Great Gatsby, less Moby Dick, less Crime and Punishment, less Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we mourn the loss of these great works!

Obviously, though, the publication of new books is progress rather than regress. A person who chose to never read a single piece of post-1960 fiction could still live a rich and full life. He could even adopt a sneering attitude toward people who insisted on reading new novels. And people who subscribe to cable television (later: DVRs). And people who buy VCRs (later: DVD players). And people who read blogs (later: Twitter feeds). But what does it really amount to? To take advantage of new opportunities to do new things means, by definition, to reduce the extent to which one takes advantage of old opportunities to do old things. One shouldn’t deny that the losses involved are real—of course they are—but simply point out that it’s unavoidable. To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

I have to say, I agree with the guy who wrote the condescending article about Twitter. I will smugly tell you that I easily spend $28/week on books. Yes, actual books that I hold in my hands, fold pages over to keep my place, and that have a few hundred pages, a sustained story arc, a narrative, plot, climax, denouement, place, and characters. True, the books I buy are complete tripe, but I read them. 

I agree and disagree with some of the things above. All things are NOT equal: Twitter is not just "new" compared to Moby Dick. But it's a lot more interactive, you can respond to the authors immediately, and its vapidity makes it fast to read. 

Again-- sort of a fan of vapid, just like mine in the form of a crappy paperbook novel. 

So, it's not vapidity at large that I am criticizing. But I don't try to polish the crap I am reading and call it literature. Sure, there have been a lot of great books written since 1960. But it does concern me that there isn't enough time. 

I always say that the reason I don't read "real" books is because it can send me spiraling into a depression. But now that I think about it, most of those books that can do that are books that have been written since the 1960s. They are often these hugely tragic tomes: The woman whose son is kidnapped for years from a hotel; the harrowing novel that opens with a toddler's drowning and continues with a school nurse being accused of things that ruin her life; a young girl who is raped and murdered, and then watches and describes how her family unravels, from her cozy little perch in the after life; the horrible, misogynist patriarchal preacher who takes his wife and daughters to live in a shack in Africa and risks their lives with predatory insects, forcing the mother to choose which of her children she will save. The fact that the one she did NOT choose survived and had to live with that-- well, do you really wonder why I read crap all the time? Formulaic crap in which I know that the earth is going to remain firmly beneath my feet and that I'm not going to read about a housewife whose life is so depressing, so parallel to my own that it will wake me sobbing...

But maybe the real problem is that I need to go back to the classics. It took me 6 weeks to read Go Down Moses. I was challenged at the time by someone who didn't think I had what it takes to read it. So, even though it was difficult reading-- Faulkner is NOT easy, it remains to this day one of my most treasured reading experiences. It is probably, if I have to choose, my favorite book. I taught it when I taught American Literature to young university students, and I took six weeks with them, just as I had given myself, and damn if they didn't GET it. And love it too. 

Just as I worry about my own fragmentation in this world, I think there is a decrease in quality in the fiction we are producing, the art we are producing. It's not okay with me that because we have Twitter and wikipedia and Salon.com and Facebook and Cracked. com that we aren't reading poetry anymore, that we complain that we have no time to read books. 

I have no control over anyone's life but mine-- and to some extent my children's, but I am surrounding us with books. Lately, I have considered, really looked and pondered, the Kindle or the Nook. I know that books are probably on the way out. Factories that produce newspaper ink are going out of business. The world is changing. I am not saying that I want to be a luddite or a dinosaur. These are truly exciting times we are living in. And I am excited that my children get to be a part of it, learning and changing and growing as fast as the world around them changes.

But I want them to be rooted in classics. Christian started reading The Iliad the other day. He was marveling at how old the book is, and how it survived in oral form for hundreds of years before its writing. This book has endured for thousands of years. The Internet is in its infancy. Perhaps before we give ourselves over to it completely, we can assign the proper respect and time to things that have endured and have endured and have endured. 

Because I don't want to spend my entire life-- my entire time-- on the cotton-candy, transient nature of Twitter and Facebook without knowing also the pleasure and nutritional quality and, yes, the importance of slowly cooking and enjoying a steak with cheddar potatoes, homemade bread, and home-grown vegetables, so as to provide a balance, less artificial ingredients, less processing. More authenticity. More health. It's not just our physical health at stake. 

I think there are things at stake. And it bothers me. I don't care if it makes me sound hopelessly unprogressive and old-fashioned. 

The author of the above blog post from Yglesias wrote: 

To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

I strenuously disagree. And what the hell is so great about novelty, anyway?

Edited to add: I went and read the George Packer piece that spurred the response that I responded to (is this called "meta" or "conversation?"). It's well worth the read. 

And this


  1. I can send you "The Enchanted" and "The Pearl of Tahkent", both modern reads that are not depresing, I assure you (includes hunky goodnes)

  2. "Kathryn" would be me, KatieK. As in Effie. And Antaeus. And the hot guy in book two that you have been avoiding.