And sluts, last I checked, aren’t well regarded in our culture.
These articles all had slightly different aims, but their bottom line was the same: Of course you need to buy an e-reader. What are you, a Mennonite?One recent story in the New York Times went so far as to claim that iPads and Kindles and Nooks are making the very act of reading better by — of course — making it social. As one user explained, “We are in a high-tech era and the sleekness and portability of the iPad erases any negative notions or stigmas associated with reading alone.” Hear that? There’s a stigma about reading alone. (How does everyone else read before bed — in pre-organized groups?)
That was part of it, I realized, trying to analyze my own ridiculous, knee-jerk judgment of this stranger. I couldn’t see what she was reading, and it bothered me. I couldn’t peer in that tiny window onto someone’s interior world, or delight in the juxtaposition that a book choice sometimes presents — when you notice a stuffy, 90-something grandma buried in a trashy romance novel, or a would-be gangsta engrossed in “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
Authors will survive and thrive. Thousands of years ago, some creative individuals painted the caves of Lascaux and began the art of storytelling, which has survived far more than the introduction of the e-book.Finally, Johannes Gutenberg can relax. Long into the future, the printed book will continue to survive because of its portability, durability, and flexibility. Many readers will prefer to read printed books for a variety of reasons that will endure. Though massive print runs will decline, today’s print technology allows a book to be manufactured and delivered within 24 hours of placing an order. I foresee a future when all of the electronic devices will have a button to press when you decide you really want that hardcover or paperback copy mailed to your home. Because no matter how exciting the world of enhanced media books becomes, I suspect there will be some like me who want it both ways. I may love my new iPad, but I still look forward to reading that relic of the past, the good old-fashioned, printed book.
Even as something about this feels true to your pessimistic soul—you can’t help but feel that we are not all slaves to technological progress. There are still backward parts of the world, like the theater companies of London, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires where human beings still commit vast amounts of words to memory. You have friends who, when they get drunk, recite Keats, Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. In some kind of group unconscious our oral culture has survived after thousands of years, and so too “book culture” will survive. We live simultaneously in several times and ages of civilization. Human beings carry the past within them as they move into the future.The “future of the book” is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. When you think about the crisis of the book you are really confronted with a crisis of your will. You can choose the culture you want, although you may not get it exactly as you dreamed. If you commit yourself, again and again—and it is an ongoing commitment, less easy than it used to be—to the culture of thought, inquiry, and rhetorical expression that arose in conjunction with the written word, inevitably you will carry books with you in whatever form, and inevitably you’ll want to “access them” and compose them in their traditional bound and printed form, if only to feel a shimmer of connection to earlier human generations.It’s undeniable that you do want this connection and that you’re not alone. American as you are, deracinated, modern: you have cause to regret so much waste, so many ruins created in the name of “fresh starts” and blank slates. The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggested that the fear of having a breakdown is our way of remembering an earlier breakdown. And so it is with industrialism and the book. American culture has killed so much that once gave pleasure to so many that it seems only logical to expect that books will be next. But the cycle of regret, too, is deeply ingrained in American life. After the buffalo were hunted to extinction on the western plains, the people who did it tried to bring them back; along the Northeastern rail lines, developers and architects eye the abandoned and rebuking factories and wonder what to make of them now. The old bones are what we have left, because we’ve surrendered the will and capacity to build newer structures like them. They are our pyramids and cathedrals, and the knowledge they once represented is lost to us, the pain that went into their labor has been distributed elsewhere, although we have not cured the pain of the laborer. To look on them is to know that it did not have to turn out that way.
So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?
[…] Yes, they certainly can publish a blog or even a book through a place like Lulu.com, but as anyone who has toured the blogosphere knows, there’s a whole lotta nobodies out there with a whole lotta nothin’ to say (and I certainly include myself in that description). Nobody has the time and patience to sift through the oceans of misspelled and poorly crafted essays and novellas online, just like nobody sits and listens to countless thousands of mp3s of various garage bands online. Anyone who does will be quickly begging for editors, publishers, anything to force some sort of Spencerian survival of the fittest into effect.
People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
[…] Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.
I make an effort to find different writers and bloggers on a regular basis; I’ve always hated how insular so much of the blogosphere is, with most people linking to the same few sources over and over again. But it’s unfortunately true that there are many days when I spend hours looking to see if anything interesting has been written about this or that topic, only to end up weary and dejected afterward, with nothing to show for my effort. Sometimes it’s because there’s nothing but drivel out there, other times it’s because there’s simply too much to go through.
And I laughed at this part:
It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.
I’m still sometimes horrified to realize that countless hours of reading online has made it so that I sometimes have to stop and consciously think about how to spell certain words or form certain phrases because I’ve seen them done incorrectly so goddamned many times. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a real editor.
I had never heard of Julian Young until I saw this book review by Francis Fukuyama a couple weeks ago. Nietzsche fanboy that I am, I was naturally intrigued, and when I learned that he had two other books on Nietzsche’s philosophy of art and religion, I was thrilled; nay, elated.
Any scholar who dared to suggest that Bach’s work wasn’t by Bach or Rembrandt’s by Rembrandt would, I trust, be handled thereafter with the academic equivalent of padded tongs. Yet outside of the ambiguous evidence of their work, we know scarcely more about the inner lives of either man than we do about that of Shakespeare. Why, then, is he the only creative giant around whom an ever-growing edifice of pseudoscholarly fantasy has been erected?
The answer may be as simple as this: Most of us are far more at home with words than with sounds or images. Not being able to do much more than sketch a crude stick figure, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have felt like to paint “The Night Watch.” But I, like you, express myself with words each day of my life, and though I know I’ll never write a play like “Cymbeline” or “The Winter’s Tale,” I also know how it feels to sit down at the keyboard and set down my thoughts about the world.
That’s interesting, but I don’t know…it doesn’t really ring true to me. I am constantly, intensely envious of writers and bloggers who are not only smarter than me but more artful writers to boot, but I can’t say it’s ever occurred to me to doubt their authorship out of jealousy; it just makes me want to try harder. And while it takes more than a little sustained effort to understand and appreciate Shakespeare, I would think that music and visual art, being more immediate and visceral, would inspire more intense interest and speculative theorizing about the mere mortals responsible for creating them. His earlier remarks about democracy and genius seem closer to the mark:
To deny that Shakespeare’s plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself—a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality. The mere existence of a Shakespeare is a mortal blow to the pride of those who prefer to suppose that everybody is just as good as everybody else. But just as some people are prettier than others, so are some people smarter than others, and no matter who you are or how hard you try, I can absolutely guarantee that you’re not as smart as Shakespeare.
If anything, Shakespeare’s story reminds us of the existence of a different kind of democracy, the democracy of genius. Time and again, the world of art has been staggered by yet another “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (to borrow a phrase from “The Great Gatsby”) who, like Michelangelo or Turner or Verdi, strides onto the stage of history, devoid of pedigree and seemingly lacking in culture, and proceeds to start churning out masterpieces. For mere mortals, especially those hard-working artistic craftsmen who long in vain to be touched by fire, few things are so depressing as to be reminded by such creatures of the limits of mere diligence.
Still, as he says, there are other great artists of humble backgrounds and means who aren’t subject to speculation about the true author of their output. Alas, ’tis a mystery.
But however it got started and for whatever reason, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery as to how it should have accumulated enough mass to become a recurring issue — people just love digging into others’ potential secrets, and thrill to the idea that they might be distinguished by possession of some esoteric knowledge. Why did supposedly intelligent people invest so much time and energy into proving that Paul McCartney’s death was being covered up? (Speaking of the Beatles, and getting back to the aforementioned comments on democracy and genius, I seem to recall hearing how there was some initial skepticism about how four working-class boys with no official training could have possibly crafted those songs.)
Synchronicity, baby. I swear by the feathers of Quetzalcoatl, just yesterday I was trading emails with a dear, sweet friend, and I was assuring her in one of them that she hadn’t missed anything at all by not subjecting herself to reading any of Ayn Rand’s novels. At one point in the afternoon, though, I stopped my typing and looked up, a quizzical look upon my face.
I said to myself, I said: “Self? Did you hear something?”
“Maybe… I’m not sure. What did it sound like?”
“Well…sort of like the collective strangled gasp of thousands of frigid, heartless Randroid fanboys and fangirls finding a momentary release from hating everyone else in the world through a simultaneous orgasm, despite the ironic fact that the thought of doing anything collectively would have spoiled even that meager pleasure for them.”
“Ah, yes, that was it. I was going to say it was just the neighbor’s dog making noise again, but no, you’re right.”
I shrugged and returned to my correspondence. Later on, I finally got around to reading the news headlines and noted that a crazy dude in a plane had gone all kamikaze on an IRS building in Texas. Ohhh, that explained it. Hell, even a name like “Joe Stack” sounds like a Rand character; straightforward, firm and rugged! Do we have a rambling fuck-the-gummint stemwinder? You know it! So there you go, my dear, sweet friend. All we need is a rape scene somewhere in there, and you’ve got one of her novels playing out in real time. See what you’re not missing?
I happen to be related to a few Randroids, so I’ve had ample opportunity to observe them in their native habitat. I was curious to see if they would, indeed, be all giddy with joy over this blow struck for freedom. So I solicited their reactions. Would they let puny obstacles like ideological consistency or fear of being called “terrorist sympathizers” stand in their way? Well, would John Galt have let that stop him? Of course not, you stupid, weak, girly-man commie. They were proud to claim this freedom fighter as one of their own (even as they claimed he was actually a leftist, trying to have their cake and smear it too).
I didn’t bother trying to point out that “It’s only terrorism when it’s done by people we don’t like for reasons we don’t agree with” is not a very sturdy ethical foundation. I didn’t ask if it was really only a few short years ago that simply calling the president a liar meant you were guilty of treason. I just promised to get my fellow bleeding hearts in the ACLU and Amnesty International to try and spring them from whatever secret prison camp they end up in under some hidden clause in the Patriot Act, and that I would send them Korans and pornography while they were there.
Eight and a half years and one Democratic president. That’s all it took before I heard Republicans, newly infatuated with moral relativism, start shamelessly arguing that crashing planes into government buildings in the hope of killing civilians was a legitimate act of political protest. If it hadn’t been so goddamned achingly predictable, it would be really funny.
Did I want to sell? To my surprise, almost without exception, I did not. Seems I’ve formed an emotional attachment to them, I would miss them even if I never give them quality time and attention ever again. Guess that marks me as a bibliomaniac…So I have my answer as to the impact iPad likely will have on me personally: I’m still in the book-buying biz too.
Visiting my parents over the holidays, my mom started enthusing to me about how she had made several hundred dollars selling a lot of her unwanted books on Amazon, and recommended I should do it too, since I have so many. I don’t think I could have been more viscerally shocked if she had suggested I should kill and eat my dogs. “Unwanted” books? Does not compute!
I am grateful to her for at least making it so that I grew up in a house where books were absolutely everywhere, and trips to the bookstore were a cause for jumping for joy. She tended towards a lot of pulp fiction and New Age spiritbabble (even more so now, with a heavy helping of lunatic Republican propaganda thrown in), but still, to a little kid, it was all fascinating. I recall her laughing once, when I must have been five or six years old, and she found me gamely trying to pretend I was deeply into some Bruce Catton book about the Civil War. Pretensions of intellectuality even then!
But such a casual attitude toward buying and disposing of books…that’s just utterly foreign to me. Not just because money isn’t quite so free as to allow me the opportunity to waste it on books I’ll never read; there’s a whole process involved in obtaining them that makes them more than just objects to me. Like I said, just being in a bookstore is a special event for me. Having the luxury to browse for a couple hours is even better. I’ll make a mental list of anything that looks interesting and look them up on Amazon’s network of independent sellers with used copies, where I usually find them for a fraction of the price. Then I get to enjoy the anticipation of waiting for it to show up in the mail. And you can damn sure bet that I’m going to actually read anything I’ve bothered to check into and buy, not just toss it aside and lose interest in it.
Or maybe I’ve just had a topic on my mind, perhaps even just an inchoate mess of thoughts loosely orbiting a vague subject, and I’ll just get online and start searching to see what, if anything, has been written about it. I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve been thrilled to find the perfect book, one I had never seen in a store and didn’t even know existed.
So there’s almost always a little history between me and any given book; maybe, just like how certain songs always have the ability to pin themselves to certain events in your life, and instantly allow you to relive them upon hearing the song again, looking at a book reminds me what was going on in my life at the time when I read it, and makes particular memories more vivid. The whole book buying/reading/collecting experience is an integral part of my identity; it’s not something subject to utilitarian considerations of convenience and practicality.
Besides, how much you wanna bet that people in such a hurry to get rid of all their bookcases are just going to fill the space with some bric-a-brac and ugly furniture?
I have to partially disagree with Ed (and Heywood) here.* Not on the galling aesthetics of texting or Twittering, no indeed. I’ve never even read anything on Twitter, let alone used it, and I’ve never sent a text message — what, as if having instant electronic mail and a tiny phone you carry everywhere isn’t fast enough for all your communication needs? Regular readers know my opinion on the amount of care and attention that should be devoted to email correspondence. And I’ve had eleven people shot for not being able to tell the difference between “they’re”, “their” and “there”! So, with my literary snob bona fides firmly established, let us move along.
I think it was reading The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch that softened my attitude on this sort of thing. To wit:
Once again, traditionalists see in these messages a society on the verge of collapse — young people can’t spell, they don’t know grammar, they don’t know punctuation! But this misses the point entirely. Yes, the writers of these things violate the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation — but they do so intentionally. The comic effect comes not from an ignorance of the rules, but from a willful flouting of the rules. If the authors and their audience didn’t know what proper grammar and spelling were, those passages would lose all their force. In a way, playful lolcatters and texters aren’t ignoring the traditional rules of English; they’re depending on the existence of those rules in order to raise a laugh.
Crystal’s summary is probably the wisest take on the whole phenomenon of extravagantly nonstandard English in electronic forums. “Some people dislike texting,” he says. “Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting, what we are seeing, in a way, is language in evolution.”
There’s much more, of course, including plenty of humbling reminders that words and spellings and abbreviations we take completely for granted today as standard and proper were once similarly bemoaned as linguistic barbarities. I remember rules I was taught in seventh grade English that are pretty much obsolete now and would make me look bizarre if I employed them, and I remember some that I choose to pointedly ignore, such as the dispute over commas and periods inside quotation marks. Point being, I like to think I have at least an above-average facility with written words, but I’m sure a professional editor would find all sorts of things to cover with red ink on this blog. Who really cares as long as you get my meaning?
But I repeat: I’m not arguing that text messages or lol-speak are equal to well-crafted prose, obviously not. I’m just saying that most of those kids probably know better, and if they don’t, they’ll probably learn enough to get by, so relax already. Speaking of which: how much clear writing ability are any of us going to need when we’re all working as slaves on Chinese robot farms? I mean, I’d personally love it if we all wrote and spoke like modern-day Shakespeares, but let’s be real: most people just don’t need that ability in order to succeed in the business world, which is increasingly the only one that mattters.
So it comes to personal taste, then, and like I said, I shudder at the sight of misspelled words and random, erratic punctuation and capitalization myself. I guess I’ve just gotten to a point where it’s not worth the energy to pull my hair out over it anymore. Of course there are countless dolts out there with mundane thoughts and near-illegible ways of expressing them, but when has it ever been otherwise? I’m not usually known for optimism, but it seems like the glass can easily be half-full if you want: mass education and technology have helped create more good writers than at any other time in history. And as much as I’d love to believe otherwise, bitter experience does not show me any solid connection between a person’s writing and thinking. Too many people can do one but not the other. Being able to construct a grammatically correct sentence does not necessarily imply an equal ability to think logically, or even sanely. Different parts of the brain involved, I suppose.
As for Twitter itself, it seems to me that the problem is the fact that someone felt it to be a necessary invention in the first place, not the fact that people have to come up with inventive shorthand to stay below the 140-character limit. Again, I say, complain about the fact that the pace of modern life is out of control and always mindlessly speeding up if you want to complain about something threatening to our civilization, not the cosmetic ways people attempt to adapt to it.
*I’m only addressing the parts of their posts regarding language and technology. As for She Who Shall Not Be Named, I couldn’t care less what she said or how she said it. Her phenomenon, such as it is, has been exhaustively mined for all symbolism and significance, and seeing as how she seems content to remain a poli-celebrity, unlikely to bother with actually running for office again, I don’t see any point in continuing to pay her undeserved attention. Yes, she’s the avatar of fucking idiocy in this great nation of ours, but that constituency has always been with us and always will be. She just happens to be a charismatic, photogenic expression of it. There’s really not much more to say about it.
Even when you’ve got hold of it, e-mail—so often dashed off in place of a phone call—rarely achieves a high literary standard. And it almost never supplies the biographically useful details that letter-writing did back when the contents of a sealed envelope were the best means of communication over a long distance.
Although nothing stings quite like being “flamed” over the e-waves, Mallon mourns the passing of the handwritten, or even hand-typed, letter—whether loving or vicious. “The glaze of impersonality over what pops up on that computer screen” spoils what once was the thrill of learning to “recognize the quirks of a person’s typing, and typewriter” or a new friend’s handwriting, which “has an intimacy and force that can never be matched.” Never mind biographers; all of humanity will lose something incalculable as letters—those “tactile couriers”—vanish, to be replaced with “uniform pixels on a monitor.”
Mallon quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of the letter as “a kind of picture of a voice.” Handwriting, even if simply a signature scrawled at the bottom of a typed page, has always been part of that picture. Some of Mallon’s correspondents, like WWI poet Wilfred Owen, considered letters an embodiment of the letter writer. “It seems wrong,” Owen wrote to his mother from the front in January 1917, “that even your dear handwriting should come into such a Gehenna as this.” It’s hard to feel the same way about e-mail, IM, or a text message. No matter how you receive it, an electronic transmission, with “Forward” just a click away, can never seem as personal, private, or real as a handwritten letter meant for you alone.
I’ve written sympathetically before about the tendency to cling protectively to one’s aesthetic preferences in the face of seemingly inevitable “progress”, whether it be people who will always prefer books to Kindles, or hard copies of music to mp3s. So, sure, if you honestly get a tactile thrill from the idiosyncrasies of someone’s handwriting on paper, more power to you.
But when oh when are we ever going to stop hearing this mindless romantic complaint about how email isn’t as authentic as pen on paper? Why stop there? Why isn’t quill and parchment more “real”? What about papyrus for all the anti-paper snobs? Cuneiform script on clay tablets with a reed stylus?
Once again, shallow romantics perceive essence where there is only form. There is nothing inherent in the medium of email that prevents users from creating interesting letters full of wit and personality, addressed affectionately to people they know well. I do it all the time with friends. And I also have old handwritten letters from friends that aren’t all that interesting, written in that stilted, uncomfortable style of those who don’t spend a lot of time cultivating and expressing interesting thoughts. It’s not the tools you use, it’s the effort you put into the work. Don’t shoot the instant messenger.
Speaking of work, it bears repeating: one thing that has changed in the last few decades is the fact that more people have to work longer hours for declining wages at less rewarding jobs. Thus, all we do with our “labor-saving” devices is use the little bit of time we save to cram in more work in the vain hope of getting ahead — or, as the case may be, just trying to stay level. And so we see thunderfuckingly stupid products like this made available. In that sense, I can’t really blame people for feeling like they don’t have the time to make emails into an entertaining event. While myopic aesthetes are sniffling about our declining literary standards, a ravenous all-business-no-pleasure culture is devouring and excreting everything of value it gets its claws into.
One thing you can fairly say about our emails, texts, cell phones, Twitter accounts, etc. is that they’ve done away with what I would call the formality and ritual that formerly accompanied letter-writing. You used to have to set aside a certain amount of time and effort to do nothing else; you couldn’t exactly be writing a letter while cradling a kid under one arm and stirring dinner with your hand, all while balancing a corded phone on your shoulder. Now you can put on your Bluetooth headset and send quick messages on your iPhone, which is connected to the Internet and more powerful than the desktop computer you had ten years ago. Like I keep saying, it’s not impossible to sit down and concentrate on nothing else but typing a worthwhile email. It’s just that the ever-increasing pace of modern life makes it so that you have to dig in your heels to do it. Our gadgets have made it so that personal communication, something that used to require a little special time and focus, is now just another mindless chore to be done as quickly as possible so that we can chase the next shiny object. And even if you don’t want to be that way, the fact that everyone else does it means that you either grudgingly join in or find yourself getting left behind in various ways, some of them financially uncomfortable.
This is where we leave behind the nitpicking over technological minutiae and get into questions of human nature: why are we so easily bored, constantly seeking novelty and stimulation? Why is it so difficult to have a philosophical sense of when enough is enough? Why don’t we see that, despite all the rhetoric equating increased consumer choice with freedom, it ironically traps us in different types of anxieities and status games we can never win? Buddhist writers talk a lot about mindfulness, the need to cultivate a sense of how to just be, how to exist in this moment. Focus on what’s right in front of you right now, whatever that may be, no matter how mundane you think it is. Focus on the person you’re having a conversation with, pay attention to them like you’ve got nothing else to do, don’t spend your time craning your head to look over their shoulder, hoping to see something more interesting happening somewhere else. Carry that around with you, and you’ll be surprised how you can find profundity and meaning even in the midst of what you’ve been conditioned to see as a sterile wasteland.