What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.
NPR’s April Fools’ Day web story “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” went viral on Facebook, where pranksters in on the joke linked to the piece and others then argued that they do too read and indignantly shared the link with exhortations to “read the story!” without actually clicking on it themselves to see that the only content was the revelation that the whole thing was a prank: “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’ ”
I finished reading The Vertigo Years over the weekend. It was a look at the major cultural, political and technological trends in the first couple decades of the twentieth century, leading up to the Great War. After reading one particularly poetic passage near the end, I stopped for a minute and just marveled at the exquisite style of it. I thought about how much time, research and vision would have to go into writing such a book. I tried to imagine, from my layman’s perspective, how one would even go about analyzing the ocean of information pertaining to such a culturally fecund period, how one would even begin to sort though the chaotic jumble of threads in order to weave the relevant ones into a coherent narrative. I remembered things that Mark Forsyth had said about the art of rhetoric and things Jonathan Gottschall had said about the deep structural patterns of storytelling and felt grateful for having the opportunity to read a book by someone who had done a masterful job with both elements.
What I appreciated most of all was the sense of context and perspective that comes from reading a good book. It’s the sort of thing that makes you realize how much of what you read on the web is merely stimulating, or perhaps I should say agitating, without being informative. There are a lot of interesting-but-fragmentary perspectives, but very few people with the ability to put them into meaningful context. Too often, information appears as if in a funhouse mirror, distorted and distended. Of course, if you think of social media as being a boisterous party environment, where everybody is trying to entertain and be entertained, it makes sense. Conversations tend to be fast, hyperbolic and superficial. Spend too much time talking in-depth to one person, and you might miss out on something exciting happening across the room. But again we find that limits and boundaries on the horizontal plane are essential if there is to be any depth to explore. Some perspectives require your undivided attention to reveal themselves. You have to excuse yourself from the party, block out the overstimulation and narrow your focus to get there.