Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bleh: Reading as Mechanical Operation

  In The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle’s second long story to employ the duo of the romantic Watson and the methodical Holmes, Watson famously calls the detective a “calculating-machine.” The claim is not extreme. Holmes—he who would later be swirled in the nebulous vortex of collective memory into a man wearing a deerstalker hat at all opportunities and saying such charming things as “Elementary, my dear Watson”—indeed was the supreme embodiment of rationality, of attempted objectivity, in Victorian fiction. He was not entirely a machine, of course; he had his quirks and preferences, like his love of the violin and an early, near-Newtonian fascination with dangerous drugs, including cocaine. But he was rigid in many ways. He read nothing but what he deemed would be useful; extraordinarily, Watson informs us in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes did not know the Earth goes around the sun—and did not care to know, either.
            “‘You see,’” Holmes explains to his partner, ‘I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.’” No useless knowledge need apply. And coming from a man so easily identified—quirks despite—with a machine, it is clear that Watson is the old romantic. Or perhaps Doyle is; it was Watson’s creator, after all, who so ardently wished that psychic phenomena could be demonstrated by science that he opened up a Psychic Museum and Psychic Bookshop and funded a Psychic Press after World War I, the same Doyle who clung long to the hope that the Cottingley girls had taken genuine photos of themselves with fairies. (They hadn’t.) He wanted this to be science, of course, and did not accept every “psychic” photograph brought to him; but his clinging to them is more symptomatic of his desires rather than his objective acceptance of evidence, and, in the case of a photo of Lord Combermere, he derided “the extreme lengths to which our opponents will go in their frantic search for a materialist explanation.”
            Nowadays, I’ve begun to feel like I’m an old romantic in a somewhat different way—though, at twenty-four, I hope I’ve a long way to go before I shuffle off the stage. Not about psychic phenomena or fairies, thank goodness—though those could certainly come in handy, I’d imagine. No, my present disappointment is because it seems that the romance in reading books—the feeling of some deep connection with a text, such that you just want to continue reading it long after you should have turned off the lights or such that you are briefly surprised to see the world around you again once you look up from the pages or screen, that thing in a text that makes you continue coming back to it over months and years, though you’ve read it cover to cover—yes, that feeling seems to be vanishing for so many people I encounter who claim to still read nowadays. Reading is no longer, for those persons, an act of pushing away the world around them to sink into the world of a text. Instead, it is simply a form of knowledge acquisition, on the same plane as using any other medium: watching videos, playing videogames. And since texts rarely grasp the viewer as fast as something you can sit back and watch, the act of reading comes up short.
            I recently came across a man in his twenties—let us call him Nod—on Facebook who posted something about this on a friend’s page. She had posted an image of John Waters in a grand library; Waters was saying, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” Frabjous advice. Nod, however, was less than impressed. “I mostly read news, but hate reading fiction,” he wrote in a comment. “To be honest: Its just a very inefficient use my time. I can watch the movie, save 20+ hours, and use that time doing something else creative.” In his grand finale, he went further: “To top it off, I can usually out-write 99% of bookworms. At the end of the day, I just think reading isn't as important as people make it out to be (or for that matter, as significant as it used to be 100 years ago).” Quite aside from the somewhat distressing notion that a person unable to distinguish between “it’s” and “its”—apostrophes are not his strong suit, as you’ll see below—believes he can “out-write” anyone beyond a high-school child, note that he has described reading in terms of its perceived efficiency. This is a busy guy, apparently. Note, too, that he has equated watching the movie version of a book to reading it, as though the mediums are different only in terms of the efficiency of their ability to convey information. Nonetheless, he has a point at the end: reading, today more than ever, is certainly far from the only way to obtain useful information.
            Nod was not finished, however. Seeming somewhat indignant at the fact that the photo of Waters had received many “likes” and his own comments had not, he made the—obvious—link to the photo-likers linking reading and sex, and then finished off with a rant:
most of my informative stuff isnt even from books. I can watch 30 min of techtv, and then pop on a random documentary each day on netflix and at the end of the year feel 100 times more intelligent/cultured than people who own tons of books. I understand that reading is an option for a medium of both information and art, but the point that I am trying to make is that in the olden days reading was the only option, and more recently with technology there are other options where people can choose to ignore reading and still not be an idiot.
Another apostrophe error, lack of capitalization—but this is Facebook—but he can out-write 99% of bookworms (across the globe? The known universe? By the vodka-stained mustache of Rimsky-Korsakov [as the composer was described in an American review of Scheherazade], this is distressing). Nonetheless, here we go again: reading is “an option” for Nod, a medium to be compared, in terms of how intelligent it can make you and how quickly it can do so, to watching videos. There is more than a hint of anal disappointment in old Nod, as though he has not fulfilled the final part of Waters’ message enough, his eyes glued instead to the glistening blue breasts of a Na’vi girl—but let us leave aside speculation. It is clear that Nod views texts merely as a form of providing information—hence his contempt for uninformative fiction—and, ergo, the text has no chance, really, of competing with videos. Why waste time reading, when you can learn the same thing by watching something?
            If one is indeed reading merely for information, it is certainly possible that Nod has a point as far as efficient use of one’s time goes. And yet, even then, the mediums are not always really comparable. To read “informational” texts like Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, the essays of Christopher Hitchens, David Sedaris, Stephen Jay Gould, Oscar Wilde—you can’t simply transpose these, or many others, onto a screen and come out with the same thing. Mediums are not interchangeable. It is certainly the case that in the century I began this essay with, you can find a great deal of texts claiming that the mediums were, in fact, profoundly linked, if not the same—Henry James, in his famous essay of 1884, “The Art of Fiction,” posited that “the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete,” and Oscar Wilde, more broadly, wrote in 1885 in a response to James Abbot McNeil Whistler’s “Ten O’clock” lecture that “there are not many arts, but one art only—poem, picture, and Parthenon, sonnet and statue—all are in their essence the same, and he who knows one knows all”—but these statements are obviously not literal truths. In nonfiction and news—Nod’s territory—there is still that grand possibility of romance, of seeing the author of a text before you as you read his or her words, of having the text evoke, for you, your own mental images, rather than being given them by the screen. For people like Nod—and he is by no means a lone example—this sense of romance simply seems not to exist, and books, therefore, need hardly exist themselves. Our greatest achievement, for a man like Nod, is our becoming more and more like machines, so that we can do everything we need as smoothly and simply and calculatedly as possible. Not that this is bad, per se—but it is a false, and deeply sad, view to apply to reading, to books, to fiction.
Is it “better” to watch a video of a text? Why compare them? Why are we so anal as a society that we feel the need to waste that time we wish so dearly to preserve through efficient living by making ludicrous comparisons? Gustav Doré beautifully and lovingly illustrated Dante, Poe, Ariosto, Shakespeare, and many other writers’ works. Is it better to look at his illustrations than to read the poems? Rubens painted Greek myths. Is it better to look at the paintings than read the myths? Rick Steves has documentaries about travel in Europe; is it better to watch them than to travel?
These are transcendently foolish questions, and yet they are the kind of questions I see people ask too often.
We have become too self-aware, it seems, too obsessed with gazing at our navels. So often, I see people (in the classes I teach, on YouTube, in cafes, etc) watching video clips or gazing at images or some such activity with utterly dispassionate gazes and still bodies; and when they are done, they respond verbosely, repeating phrases often and reflecting on how they feel about the act of looking. They will often complain about how much time activities like reading waste, and yet they will spend grand amounts of time studying phenomena that could easily be argued are also a waste of time, if time is so utterly precious—articles calculating the mathematical trajectory of the launch of birds in Angry Birds, for instance. These people seem, often, to have some great desire of being legitimized as critics, perhaps partly because it is so hard to stand out from the crowd nowadays. And yet, these persons appear, at least, to refrain from letting themselves be swept up into the experience of a thing; they instead are constantly aware (again, so they appear, at least) of the fact that they are engaged in the act of doing something.
And this, of course, is why reading is so unappealing to people like Nod, aside from its poorer efficiency. The act of reading asks that one unclench one’s buttocks (to your comfort level) and enter the world of a text, that one feel the pulse of the words, that one lose oneself in a text as though it were music. “All art,” Walter Pater famously wrote in an essay on Giorgione, “aspires to the condition of music.” But if you are constantly aware that you are reading lines of ink on a page or pixels on a screen, you cannot do this, and you will end up reading even less efficiently, since you’re wasting time thinking about the act.
You can be smart without being a reader. Nod got that right. And reading is no gateway to assured intelligence. Ray Comfort and Snooki, after all, have books for sale (ghostwritten though Snooki’s was). But to act as though this is a point worth debating is symptomatic of an almost psychotic sensibility, inherited in part from postmodernism, in which people view all topics and arguments as equally worth a response; moreover, it is, if one goes as far in one’s critique of reading as Nod does, symptomatic of a loss of romance, or of being too attached to the contemplation of one’s navel—the latter meaning, in this context, to create a barrier between a work of art and one’s experience of it.
Finding romance in a book does not mean that one is mystically or kookily inclined. I’m a skeptic of high order, after all. I believe in the Romantics’ (capitalized, now) sudden bursts of inspiration; and yet I believe this kind of “inspiration” is simply a neurological state, replicable under laboratory conditions, the product of no god, angel, or muse (though I love imagining my brain state as a lovely girl in Grecian garb descended from the clouds and stars). And as much as I believe that life can be marvelous, as Alejo Carpentier and Viktor Shklovsky famously claimed in their own ways, I nonetheless do not let myself be carried away into mistaking dreams and desires for facts. I am often a pessimist—not quite a Schopenhauer, but not terribly far from it. But this does not prevent me from being an old romantic at twenty-four, skeptical of omphaloskepsis.
Don’t become calculating-machines when you read, if you read, please. Don’t lose the love. Let yourself wander into a text, once you’ve secured a chunk of free time; don’t allow the wonder to wander away. You might not see it again.

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