September 15, 2010
THE PRINTED PAGE UNDER STRESS; THE REWARDS OF THE LITERARY LIFE; AND THE DECLINE IN INTELLECTUAL DEPTH
Alter, Robert, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2010) ("What I should like to emphasize in regard to the American novelists from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first whom I shall be considering is that the language of the Old Testament in its 1611 English version continued to suffuse the culture even when the fervid faith in Scripture as revelation had begun to fade. . . . [T]he language of the Bible remains an ineluctable framework for verbal culture in this country. . . ." Id. at 3. "The decline of the role of the King James Version in American culture has taken place more or less simultaneously with a general erosion of a sense of literary language, although I am not suggesting a causal link. The reasons for this latter development have often been noted, and hence the briefest summary will suffice for the purpose of the present argument: Americans read less, and read with less comprehension; hours once devoted to books from childhood on are more likely to be spent in front of a television set or a computer screen; epistolary English, once a proving ground for style, has been widely displaced by the high-speed short-cut language of e-mail and text-messaging. . . . Obviously, there are still people in the culture, including young people who have a rich and subtle sense of language, but they are an embattled minority in a society where tone-deafness to style is increasingly prevalent. That tone-deafness has also affected the academic study of literature, but there are other issues involved in the university setting, and to those I shall turn in due course." Id. at 10.). Carr, Nicholas, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010) ("For some people, the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old-fashioned, maybe even a little silly--like sewing your own shirts or butchering your own meat. 'I don't read books,' says Joe O'Shea, a former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. 'I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.' O'Shea, a philosophy major, doesn't see any reason to plow through chapters of text when it takes but a minute or two to cherry-pick the pertinent passages using Google Book Search. 'Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make sense,' he says. 'It's not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.' As soon as you learn to be 'a skilled hunter' online, he argues, books become superfluous." Id. at 8-9. "Readers didn't just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to 'lose oneself'' in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. . . . What draws our attention most of all is any hint of a change in our surroundings. . . . Our fast-paced, reflective shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we'd overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear." Id. at 63-64. "Yet surely online bingeing is no different from eating too many sweets: its remedy is a mater of old-fashioned self-restraint." From "Fast Forward: The Effects of the Internet," The Economist, Books and Arts, June 26th 2010, at 88. Yet, see Op-Ed piece by David Brooks, "The Medium Is the Medium," NYT, 7/8/2010.).
Gordimer, Nadine, Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008 (New York: Norton, 2010) ("Within the small group of intellectuals in South Africa, writers represent an even smaller group; and for that reason perhaps the people of the country might be content to ignore what is happening to them." "But what of the readers? What of the millions, from university professors to children spelling out their first primers, for whom the free choice of books means the right to participate in the heritage of human thought, knowledge and imagination?" "Yes, they still have a great many uncensored books to read . . . though even the classics have been shown not to be immune from South African censorship . . . . But surely the people realise that no one can be well-read or well-informed or fitted to contribute fully to the culture and development of his own society in the democratic sense while he does not have absolutely free access to the ideas of his time as well as to the accumulated thought of the past, nor while, in particular, there are areas of experience in the life of his own society and country, which through censorship, ere left out of his reading? . . ." Id. at 130-131. "To be literate is to be someone whose crucially formative experience may come just as well from certain books as from events." Id. at 38. "When one says one writes for 'anyone who reads me' one must be aware that 'anyone' excludes a vast number of readers who cannot 'read' you or me because of concerns they do not share with us in grossly unequal societies. . . . This is the case even for those of us, like me, who believe that books are not made out of other books, but out of life." "Whether we like it or not, we can be 'read' only by readers who share terms of reference formed in us by our education--not merely academic but in the broadest sense of life experience: our political, economic, social and emotional concepts, and our values derived from these: our cultural background. It remains true even of those who have put great distances between themselves and the inducted values of childhood: who have changed countries, convictions, ways of life, languages. Citizenship of the world is really another acculturation, with its set of givens which may derive from many cultures yet in combination becomes something that is not any of them." Id. at 440-441. "See also Adam Kirsch, Letters form Johannesburg, NYT Book Review, Sunday, 8/1/2010.).
Hitchens, Christopher, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York & Boston: Twelve, 2010) ("It is quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction is the great imperative of our time. . . . To be an unbeliever is not to be merely 'open-minded.' It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics. . . . [A]nd I find that for the remainder of my days I shall be happy enough to see if I can emulate the understatement of Commander Hitchens and say that at least I know what I am supposed to be doing." Id. at 433. "Near the end of his new book, Hitch-22, which is neither strictly a memoir nor quite a political essay but something in between, Christopher Hitchens informs the reader that he has, at long last, learned how to 'think for oneself,' implying that he had failed to do so before reaching the riper side of middle age. This may not be the most dramatic way to conclude a life story. Still, thinking for oneself is always a good thing. And, he writes, ' the ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting . . . just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think'." Ian Buruma, "The Believer," NYRB, July 15, 2010, 6-10, at 6. Also take in David Runciman, "It's Been a Lot of Fun," London Review of Books, 24 June 2010, 11-14; and David Brooks, "Such, Such Are His Joys," NYT, Opinions, 7/2/2010. "The new memoir from Christopher Hitchens reveals the literary life of a political provocateur.").
Lanier, Jaron, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010) ("It's early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons--automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. . . ." "The vast fanning out of the fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of cases." "The words in this book are written for people, not computers. "I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself." Id. at ix. "The Blankness of Generation X Never Went Away, but Became the New Normal." Id. at 128. "It is worth repeating obvious truths when huge swarms of people are somehow able to remain oblivious. That is why I feel the need to point out the most obvious overall aspect of digital culture: it is comprised of wave after wave of juvenilia." "Some of the greatest speculative investments in human history continue to converge on silly Silicon Valley schemes that seem to have been named by Dr. Seuss. On any given day, one might hear of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a start-up company named Ublibudly or MeTickly. These are names I just made up, but they would make great venture capital bait if they existed. At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the undeveloped work by schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school." Id. at 182.).
Leist, Anton & Peter Singer, eds., J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2010) ("Why should philosophers and writers, readers of philosophical literature and readers of the belles lettres, be interested in each other? In actual fact, they rarely are, but once in a while a philosopher strikes a chord with the readers of fine literature, and, vice versa, a writer of poetry or novels provokes philosophers to read him. John M. Coetzee is surely a candidate for this second category, and therefore motivates the questions asked in the present selection of essays. . . . " Id. at 1. "Whatever position in philosophy one takes, an awareness of how literature responds to the external pressures put on the mental format of our modern Western tradition has an extremely liberating effect on philosophy's internal self-control and, in part, self-restriction. Philosophy tends to involve its students in foundational projects instead of opening their views to more practical problems of the real world--although applied ethics and political philosophy are often exceptions. Literature is frequently a more natural and more human way of expressing oneself. In the hands of great artists, it portrays our most elementary experiences. Other art forms may also do this, but literature is the most verbally explicit of the arts and therefore always the ultimate medium in which to be critical toward something, including philosophy, and to orient ourselves in the world. Ethics, and applied ethics especially, is helped by the literary imagination, of it confronts the conflicting forces visible in different philosophical positions as well as in our everyday culture. Coetzee's literary works is exemplary in this sense, as he himself is driven by the different tendencies and alternative that are liberated when modernism is put on trial. Not least among these is the attempt to find pieces of transcendental philosophy in literature, which again shows both the problem faced by philosophy and the advantage of literature, To shift the puzzle of philosophical reflection into literature could be at least a first step toward tackling them in a more realistic and practical manner. It could yield insights hard to come by in the usual academic style of philosophical work." Id. at 13-14.).
George Orwell, "Literature and the Left," Tribune, 4 June 1943, reprinted in George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 15: Two Wasted Years, 1943 edited by Peter Davison (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1998), at 125-127 ("The illiteracy of politicians is a special feature of our age--as G. M. Trevelyan put it, 'In the seventeenth century Members of Parliament quoted the Bible, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the classics, and in the twentieth century nothing'--and it s corollary is the literary impotence of writers." Id. at 126. And who do our politicians, our writers, and we ourselves, quote now in the twenty-first century? Can you quote less than nothing?).
GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING RADICALLY RETROGRESSIVE: PURCHASE A GOOD (SUBSTANCE- AND CONTENT-WISE) PRINTED BOOK. THEN GO HOME AND DO SOMETHING EVEN MORE RADICALLY RETROGRESSIVE: READ IT! AND, IF YOU ARE FEELING AMBITIOUS, FIND A MATURE PERSON TO DISCUSS THE BOOK WITH YOU. I KNOW, I KNOW. DISCUSSING BOOKS AND IDEAS WITH REAL PEOPLE IS REALLY RETROGRESSIVE SOCIAL NETWORKING.