I Miss Books Like I Miss My Bicycle (Or, Riding a Horse with Hay Fever)
Tired of discourses on "the future of publishing"? Need a laugh? Read on!
After the end of books I felt a sense of relief. It was how the new clergy felt under Martin Luther when they realized that Latin lessons were going to be two hours shorter. When I was six years old, my brother gave me Papillon to read and I waded through the 576-page autobiography—my favorite scene was when the leper throws his finger into the fire—thinking that it was a reasonable book for me to digest. True, I was an ambitious reader. I disdained to enter the library book-reading contests because they were just for kids. It was my plan to read only what adults would enjoy. I hid my Conans, my Heinlein, and my Burroughs “Mars” paperbacks; Jules Verne I thought was permissible because he was translated from French. Somehow I thought that Edgar Allan Poe was also a kids’ writer so I hid his stories, too. My mother read Stephen King and Erma Bombeck so I read all of those; I don’t remember what else she read, but anything she kept by her bed stand I took to my room and ate it up before she returned it to the library. Many of them I enjoyed, of course; most of everything I read I relished; and when I conceived the project, at age fifteen or sixteen, of reading everything in the Western canon, beginning with The Odyssey, I discovered what all readers of the great books realize: they are not the sluggish monsters we expected but the very most enjoyable books to read, the easiest books, the fastest, the “beach reads.” (Literature hiccupped in the twentieth century and produced a few exceptions to this rule: Finnegan’s Wake, The Making of Americans, a few others I’m not thinking about, because they were painful. But even Thomas Mann’s massive Joseph and His Brothers—written by a master whose books nevertheless are, as a rule, a bit clayfooted—reads almost breathlessly. But the truth is, all this time I was reading both for pleasure and as a duty. It was as though I was counting the books as I went. Students would enter my office, later, and ask, “Have you really read all these books?” (a student’s all-time favorite kiss-ass office question), and I could say, “All but that one and the other beside it, and I’m getting to those next week,” or something like that. There was a time, a long time, when I wouldn’t put a book on my shelf unless I had read it.
Then, hallelujah, they decided to stop books. At first I was annoyed, because in the meantime I had begun writing them, and even counting on the little bit of income involved. Thank God I hadn’t quit, as they say, my day job. My day job—I’m a professor—involved books in theory but very little in practice. It was more an exercise in pretending about books. The students pretended to have read the books and I pretended to have something illuminating to say about them. I pretended to be an expert in the books—books that I had in many cases read only once, and a long time ago, or sometimes only a handful of paragraphs in, or someone else’s synopsis of, or even not at all. In this way class was a bit like a literary party or barroom conversation where we discussed the latest books that we hadn’t read but pretended we had or had begun to, and about which we all had strong opinions, but were equally and agreeably circumspect about avoiding mention of characters, events, and plot twists. So, professor-wise, the end of books was a painless solution to an “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario that I felt was otherwise bound to result in my humiliation sooner or later, as I was, after all, the emperor in question, even though I had become very deft at deferring pointed questions from the occasional student who had done the reading to hapless innocents among the class. “Aha! Someone hasn’t done their reading! Well, class, let’s work on this one together, shall we?” Then you start with the woman who asked the question in the first place. “And what do you think? Give us a little background.” We’ve all been to college, we know the routine. So, yes, no more whited sepulcher at the chalkboard, that was a good thing.
Initially we switched to blogs, which were free, short, usually had nice pictures—I don’t like the long ones absent visual aids, myself; they drag on—and we could read them in “real time,” right there in the classroom, as a kind of beehive of knowledge, collectively shooting links to one another and twittering like a flock of finches, and…you get the picture. No syllabus! (Not even online.) We had a webpage and every class was like a new day, fresh reading, unexpected suggestions, sites to discover. It was very contemporary, everything as shiny as a new pair of shoes, with that glossy magazine effect but without those annoying little cards falling out every time you open it. Blogs led us to video games, and if you want to talk about the mind-body problem or Heidegger’s notion of angst, frankly, you could do a lot worse than Red Dead Redemption. Plus, you don’t think these things are going to be fun until you try them—then, I’m telling you, watch out. I spend hours preparing for class now, at home in the basement, whereas I used to squeeze in twenty minutes in my office between emails before filling my coffee cup and walking into the lecture hall.
That moaning from the poets. Back in the old days, did you ever actually try to suffer through an afternoon with a poet, a real live practicing poet? There’s a reason we all stayed drunk back then. I hope my three daughters will be programmers. It was poets who killed the books, if we want to tell the truth about it. Take this top-forty number: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Now, really. Right up there with things depending on red wheelbarrows in the rain. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that? It’s an honest question. You might as well try to squeeze the juice from Heraclitus. And I’ll admit it, “In a Station of the Metro” used to be a favorite of mine! All sarcasm aside, when this is the finest fruit of our most celebrated writers, I’m with the book-killers. But, like many of us, I was buying into this complex Persian-carpet-fraud that took centuries to weave and was a masterpiece of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and yet took all of three or four people, say Al Gore, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs, a handful of years to unravel.
Now I miss books as much as I miss my bicycle. There was a time I would have ridden a worse to work (and a miserable time it would have been, too, as I have hay fever). Now If I want to read, voila, I touch a button: pictures-text-video-music, it’s better than the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are (well, much better). Instead of some dead pedant blowing wind, I can interact with other creative minds as they create, unedited, the raw stuff, but also with the high bar of capitalism to Folsom flop: because we won’t view it if it ain’t what the market will view. Count your hits. That’s the new paradigm, folks: viewing, not reading. Hell, non-human animals don’t read, but they view, and they seem a whole lot happier than we do (at least, when they’re not in captivity). Aesthesis in the old-fashioned sense. Like Plato said: “the lovers of sights and sounds”! And our new native environment is virtual. Even when we had books, I spent more time returning emails than I did reading. Reading books, I mean. Maybe an hour at night before falling asleep, my wife (twelve years younger) surfing the web beside me, a warped-covered, heavy-papered, coffee-stained Swann’s Way or The Idiot resting on my chest. Truth is I read my computer screen and my iPhone all day long. Or viewed them, I should say. Caught me backsliding there. And I don’t feel guilty any more! There’s no end to what one might read, so a plan like I once had of holding the canon in my head is like planning to swim across the Pacific; why not rather have fun simply splashing in the waves? It’s called surfing the web. You can stay on the surface. When you’re under the wave, it’s because you’ve fallen off the board.
As for being freed from the obligation to write books, well, enough said.
From The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (Soft Skull Press). Reprinted by Permission of the author.
Clancy Martin is a Canadian novelist, essayist, and translator. A contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, he is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
This piece first appeared in The Late American Novel:Writers on the Future of Books.