The Modern Reader, What’s That?

30 Aug

Recently as I was walking down Wörther Strasse, Berlin, I found myself passing St. George’s English-language bookshop, where a few copies of my short story collection have been kenneled for the last few months. As usual, I find them dozing on the shelf next to Arthur Koestler, which is exalted company, to be sure, yet Koestler’s majestic spines always seem to throw a shadow over the modest heirs of my own invention.

Publishing a book these days is like watching a man falling off a building, hurriedly shrieking a last message to his stunned friends on the roof before he’s dashed against the pavement.

The question remains, how do ‘modern’ readers relate to the torrent of new books pouring over the edge of the precipice and dashing themselves against semi-modern classic bastions such as Philip Roth, Carson McCullers or even (why not?) William Burroughs? They are all ‘pre-digital’ and for that reason solidly endowed with profiles cemented in ‘old media’, while, behind them, rise the towering snow-capped peaks of nineteenth and early twentieth century gigantism, rooted in an age when books held an importance far in excess of their financial performance. Emily Dickinson… George Eliot… Charles Dickens… And then, like stars spattered across the vaulted universe, Shakespeare… Homer…. Virgil… maybe even Ovid? None of the celestials ever earned a dollar in royalties (possibly one of the worst cases of copyright rip-off in history) and would not even have known what a royalty payment was (come to think of it, neither do most modern writers). What they wrote they wrote for love, or necessity.

On my way out, I’m stopped in my tracks by the very inviting magazine rack at St. George’s. I locate the Spring 2010 issue of N+1 and minutes later I am nestled in a café, reading about “Webism, the Social Movement”, an analysis of the web and books and whether the twain shall ever meet.

The Editors of N+1 quote Walter Benjamin, as always uncannily predictive, on “modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced”, a weightier, more thoughtful correlative to Andy Warhol’s infamous “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Yet the two men, though in different eras, seem to be on the trail of the same idea. Benjamin Buchloh, Rosenblatt Professor of Art at Harvard, put it in an altogether more scholastic way when he explained Warhol’s remark by allusion to “the systematic invalidation of the hierarchies of representational functions”, which must now be taken as a reference to the Internet and what it has done to information.

Whether we like it or not, books are information of an amazingly long-winded kind, which is one of the reasons why readers have to be fierce and passionate, riding their terrified steeds into a breaking wave of words. The aim and underlying concept of books is that the reader, whether modern or not, should surface on the other side, wiser and somehow… better. Or at least “amused”. Amused readers are better than bored ones, I think. But not always. If you are reading Kierkegaard you’ll not feel so very amused, but with luck you’ll not be bored either, though if you are then at least you’ll be virtuous.

Back to the N+1 article, which has now turned to the struggle of the mighty New York Times to meet the challenge of the online environment, trying to accommodate the fact that advertising will no longer pay for its paper and ink magnum opus. With the help of Facebook and Google, advertising has found itself an enormous and targeted online market, effectively outflanking the old monopoly. The New York Times threw itself at the online environment like a tin of paint flung at a wall. Somehow, it managed to cover every crevice: blogs, comments, entertainment, celebrity gossip. Yet at times all those brains for hire had nostalgic fits when they thought of times past – those leisured assignments in Vienna, in Phnom Penh, those carefree expense account lunches. Gone! Gone! As the Editors of N+1 put it: “At other times, the obsession with new media has led to strange outbursts – as when the writer of a piece on Robert Caro’s monumental 1,200 page biography of Robert Moses suddenly and entirely irrelevantly bemoaned the ‘age when sentence fragments on a blog pass for intellectual argument.’ Even as the institution itself was struggling desperately to adapt, this sort of dig at the internet emerged from the editorial desk on a regular basis, like a cry of pain.”

I wonder if Homer would have composed an orally transmitted poem if he’d had access to an iPad? It seems unlikely. Would people have invented poetry at all, if rhyme and meter weren’t ideal mnemonic devices? Presumably, back in Homer’s day, one only had to sit by a smoking campfire for a few moments sipping one’s mulled wine and gnawing a haunch of lamb, before some grizzled prophet started intoning the lay of wily old Odysseus? Today, is there anyone in the whole world who could recite “The Odyssey” from beginning to end?

N+1 puts it more succinctly: “Book-length literature is the product of certain historical conditions, of a certain relationship to written language.” This seems hard to deny. Swedish Nobel Prize-winning writer Harry Martinson, when asked by Artur Lundkvist (a Swedish poet) why his early attempts at writing were all poetry, explained that poetry was shorter than novels and at the time he could not afford paper.

So what’s next for the book? Have eBooks transcended the problem of transference, will we keep reading tomes? Or will we slowly but inexorably shift our attention to short stories, novellas, flash fiction, snippets to be quickly digested or admired? “Assimilate book-ism to webism and the book looks like nothing so much as an unreadably long, out of date, and non-interactive blog post.”

The N+1 article was written almost two years ago, and it may be that technological development has already somersaulted beyond the authors’ cautious expectations? Has the effective digitalization of the book finally been achieved? Is there a Modern Reader out there, willing to get out her knife and fork and gorge on some words?

On my way home I pass by St. George’s again; slightly guiltily, I sneak inside, savor the smell of dust and creaky floorboards and come away with contraband: a frayed copy of Manuel de Landa’s “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.” It appeals to me, the way someone else’s sweat and dirt has marked the pages. If we could digitize the smell of worm-eaten books, I reckon the battle would be won. Could someone out there please come up with an App? Books are worth reading. They beat the pants off film or any other medium. The human brain is the best audio-visual device in the world, and always will be.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, November 15th, 2011. View original post and comments here.)


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