We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.
This morning as I sat down to quickly scan through 851 Twitter updates, it was like listening to a large flock of parrots in the leafage. An astonishing number of people had retweeted an article by Henry Porter in the UK Guardian: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” Oh, and guess what. “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” And finally: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” You know what? I’m starting to believe that Jonathan Franzen is not wrong. I’m also wondering if anyone actually read Henry Porter’s article, or did they just skim it and think it looked like useful tweeting material?
Guiltily I peered at my Kindle, into which last night I downloaded a copy of Lucius Seneca’s essays and an edition of Monkeybicycle magazine. I must have read at least fifteen pages from each of those two. Which makes me better informed than I was before, better read and more intelligent. Right?
Currently I have about twenty-five books in that small grey slab of battery-driven plastic, many of them unread. Franzen calls this “a lack of permanence” which (he implies) may eventually lead to failure in civil governance and the judicial state, but that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? Forgetting where my favorite bit of Seneca is located is not going to stop the Arab Spring, though it may in time turn me into a lunatic.
There is a tendency among humans to chatter, like monkeys crowding the tree-tops alongside the parrots. That is in fact what I am doing now, and the problem of social networking is that my chatter becomes your chatter, and before long we have all turned into that monstrosity (coined by Auberon Waugh, an English writer and columnist) known as the “chattering classes” – once a scathing reference to middle-class buffoons with the time and money to sit about worrying about nothing. Eventually it led to the invention of psychotherapy—I think I read that somewhere.
As we sit in our tree, arguing about the shape of this leaf or the angle of that branch, it is worth asking ourselves if we’re really getting to the heart of the matter. In debating the merits of eBooks, aren’t we just losing ourselves in detail? Surely the important thing is that the tree is growing straight, its roots reaching deep, no army of loggers on their way with giant chainsaws and monster trucks to chew the forest to pieces?
The eBook is not intrinsically wrong, it is simply a book in digital form. Only its gaseous cousin, the noBook, could ever be a threat to our liberal consensus. The noBook is the real problem of our age, leading to a nasty public addiction to inane twenty-four hour news bulletins, celebrity kiss-and-tell, “reality” shows, or out-of-tune singing and elephantine dancing, all faithfully recorded and transmitted over the airwaves like the ravings of a mental disease. Commercialism is advancing with all the confidence and inevitability of a virus. Every possible activity undertaken by humans – coffee-drinking is a great example – is being built into companies listed on the Stock Exchange. We used go to cafés run by families who kept their profit for themselves. They saved their dough and sent their children to college so they could learn about Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein. Now “the parents” work for eight bucks an hour or less, can’t afford children, and have never heard of college.
I have every sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. In an unguarded moment (no doubt to his eternal chagrin) he revealed that he does not like to have an Internet connection while he is writing. Like everyone else, he is addicted to this distracting show, this round-the-clock firework display of human consciousness. The mere fact that we all know about this habit of his speaks volumes for the invasiveness of the online world. We are dealers of tidbits, of samples and excerpts and scraps, tufts, feathers, dried bread and moldy cheese. We chew and chew, in the end it starts to taste like food. But there’s no meat or fresh fruit in this mixture, there are no vitamins, no B7 or calcium or potassium or zinc, our brains start breaking down. We develop tics and sudden silences, information goes missing and dementia becomes a state of mind, not a disease. One day we’ll all feel impotent without our portable auxiliary drives, also known as iPods, where we can store all the background information of our lives, all the hyperlinks and video clips and podcasts, all illustrative of… of… well… illustrative (I would say) of the need to shut up.
Back to Franzen, the fatted calf of his kind, relaxing in his comfortable Cartagena hotel at the Hay Festival: yes, Jonathan, no one can write in a storm of words. You need a bit of silence, a bit of thought. I agree. And you are entitled to your opinion like everyone else, even though the media’s insistence that you are “the Great American novelist” has earned you general opprobrium all over the world. There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless. And few, very few, are great and most of those are dead.
But it is not your fault that we are all chattering.
We have to keep it in perspective, we have to think about the roots, the trunk of the tree, the wind and the stars. Not whether leaves look best in autumn or spring, whether the oak beats the baobab or the sycamore’s a sophomore?
Back to fundamentals. Basics. Roots.
So, now for my conclusion on it all: I am much more worried about the noBook than the eBook. The way society is currently set up, people have time to read gossip, restaurant reviews and the lengthy and utterly inane clarifications of “financial experts.” Television serves up a gravy of entertainment, and we need bibs to stop ourselves from looking like eight-month olds daubed in lamb purée and carrot mash. Ideas about our future society are presented by the likes of Mitt Romney or the Koch brothers, who pay for air time and in this way want to win elections. In fact they are closely emulating Amazon, the emerging behemoth that wants to own both the writer and the bookshop. Amazon will be broken up in a few years – this is my prediction of the week. Incidentally, it was a similar monopolizing instinct that led to the demise of the Hollywood studio system – directly responsible for some of the best films of the 20th century and not surprisingly coinciding with the golden age of America. Hollywood, now fragmented into virulent competing entities, is helpfully wading into the digital battle, serving up bland, lukewarm fare and wondering why the audience is disappearing. Even dressing up Meryl Streep to look like Margaret Thatcher doesn’t quite hit the spot any more. The audiences stay at home, watching television or surfing the net. Films are boring and cinemas a popcorn-stinking nightmare.
Most of the objections we hear about eBooks are technical. With time, Kindle and eReaders will become more sophisticated. Technology is easy, humans are good at it. What they are not so good at is using their brains in a constructive fashion, or making technology do what they want it to do.
So… eBooks or noBooks? Before I answer that, let me just check my e-mail.