Over at the site where I now spend most of my energies, Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning, we ran a series on whether digital media is making us worse writers. It's a good series--not the knee-jerk, woe-is-me approach, but a look at how "writing" is changing. The series raises the prospect that writing is no longer just words on the page, but the ability to tell stories with sound, music, image, and words. We're digital thinkers now after all.
I'm not yet convinced, to be honest, that writing should include all that other media, but I'm open to thinking about it. I'd love to know what you think. Read the stories and leave some comments.
Anyway, in researching that story, I ran across this interview last year with Tina Brown and novelist Philip Roth. Roth thinks the novel will become cultic in less than 25 years, with a small devoted group of readers, “maybe more than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”
He pinpoints the problem with the form—“the print, the book. It’s the object itself.” Reading a novel requires focus and time that are in short supply today. The novel, he says, can’t compete with so many screens.
One thing he said struck me, mainly because I'm guilty of it. He said that no one can really read and absorb a novel if you have to spread the reading out over 2 weeks or more. He argues that you have to sit with a novel and devour it in a couple sittings, max. Spreading the reading out any longer and you lose the essence of the novel, its beauty, its thread, the author's rhythm and use of language (I'm inferring that result from the edited clip).
And with that, a lightbulb goes on. So that's why, a year later, I couldn't tell you what happened in 97% of all the books I have read (Oh, who's kidding whom, I couldn't tell you the plot of a book I read 2 months ago). I used to chalk it up to bad memory, or age, or whatever. I'd work at it--making some notes in the margins or underlining some beautiful passages. Nope, still not sticking. I'd read slowly. I'd skim. Nothing worked. If you quizzed me today on what happened in Roth's "The People Against America," I couldn't tell you. I liked it. I remember that.
But you know, I read the Zuckerman trilogy in a pretty condensed period of time over a vacation once, and I can indeed recall the plot lines, and I can vividly recall Zuckerman in all his stages of outrage and angst. (I can actually always call up the characters in a novel come to think of it. I may not remember their names, but I remember their personalities).
So maybe he's right. Maybe the novel is indeed doomed in our sound-bit, clipped, bombarded world. We express ourselves a lot more, but we don't absorb--really take in--any more. All output, no input.
Well, so what? In many ways, the novel has always been a bit cultic. Only a relative handful of Americans today (or ever) read "serious" novels (my agent and editors say those people all live on the coasts. ouch). Even today, there are the cultic few who still sit in a quiet room without television on, without email pinging, without the dumb-phone buzzing for attention, and read uninterrupted for hours, lost in the other world that has been created for them.
All true. But the real worry for me is this: seepage. Even though serious fiction, and serious nonfiction readers for that matter have always been rather few and far between, we at least didn't admit it. We still as a culture strove to be better readers, more highbrow. We faked it when we hadn't read War and Peace. But we tried. I remember my parents' book shelves stuffed with the Readers Digest condensed editions of the books of the day (both now-classics and the junk). My small-town Iowa parents had Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" on the shelves (quite a shocking find for a ten-year-old). They had "To Kill a Mockingbird." And my parents were not highbrow, in the least.
Today, though, we don't even fake it any longer. In fact, we revel in the fact that we're not "elite." We're embracing this new "just in time" knowledge as a badge of honor, shedding the guilt of not reading anything deeply, of dismissing newspapers as "old media," not because the news is irrelevant or novels are too obscure, but because we're too lazy to sit and read them. Oh wait, I mean too busy to sit and read them.
Seepage. From "oh I'll get around to that" to "why read, it's all biased anyway." Justification? Rationalization? I don't know.
[this blog ran on my personal blog as well: www.mybarbararay.com]