My blog is better than your blog: literature and evaluation on the net

Sebastian Mary over at if:book has a new post that takes up some more about the problematics of trying to “do literature” on the web. Among many other things, Mary says the following:

‘Literature’ here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say ‘literary’ I mean things fitting a loose cluster of – sometimes self-contradictory – ideas including, but not limited to:

the importance of traceable authorship
the value of ‘proper’ language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality

And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of ‘literary’ is that it’s a broadcast-only model. If you don’t believe me, check out any writers’ community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. ‘Literary’ works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don’t – or at least have never been expected – to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it’s so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it’s so damn slippery.)

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Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of ‘literary’ is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there’s no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch – but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints – or create new ones: as O’Reilly’s guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won’t. And hence much of what’s reified as ‘literary’, online, ceases to carry much weight.

I like a lot of what Mary is groping after here, but I would offer a few caveats. The notion of the “literary” is not coextensive with the creation of books, but came in to being much later than books came in to being. You could trace the notion of the literary to the development of Gutenberg’s press, but even that would be a bit anachronistic. Our current use of the term “literary” doesn’t really fully develop until late in the eighteenth, early in the nineteenth century, and only becomes a full-blow ideology in the middle and late nineteenth century. Cf Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature.

This suggests that simply doing away with our sense of the literary might not do away with our sense of the need to categorize and create hierarchies. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, said T.S. Eliot, and he’s right. Even as you read this blog you are evaluating and criticizing, if only to say that this blog is or is not worth the reading time. Cf Barbara herrnstein Smith in Contingencies of Value. To be sure, the methods and means by which we come to determine what is worth doing is very different on the web than it was in Eliot’sSamuel Johnson London, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Indeed, literary criticism as we know it began with Samuel Johnson and others who were trying to figure out, among other things, what was worth their time to read.

One response to this, typical on the web, is to say “Well, I can read anything I damn well please. And who are you to think differently?” But this kind of attitude doesn’t hold up for very long. Of course, anyone CAN read anything they want to read, just as people CAN sit in their barcaloungers and drink beer all day. But we constantly evaluate and imagine human activities in terms of what kinds of social worlds they make possible. To admit this isn’t to be an elitist. To do otherwise is to imagine a world where I could care less if Bob down the street never bothers to learn to read a book more difficult than “See Dick Run” since, after all, its his personal preference or part of his culture. That’s fine, but if his kids and grandkids imitate him, we’ve got not a personal preference but a social problem. At least in any society that we are currently living in.

All of this is merely an aside to say criticism happens. And it is and will continue to happen on the web. For instance, this week’s New York Review of Books contains an excellent article, a review of John Broughton’s Wikipedia, The Missing Manual. The review suggests that Wikipedia is entering a mature middle age. One sign of that middle age is a developing set of rules and hierarchies. NicholsonThe Missing manual Baker writes of the chaotic creative destruction–and destructive creativity–that characterized wikipedia in the early days, before going on:

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times‘s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue. “This Missing Manual helps you avoid beginners’ blunders and gets you sounding like a pro from your first edit,” the book says on the back. In his introduction, Broughton, who has himself made more than 15,000 Wikipedia edits, putting him in the elite top 1,200 of all editors—promises “the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules.” And it’s true: this manual is enlightening, well organized, and full of good sense. Its arrival may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia’s history; some who read it will probably have wistful longings for the crazy do-it-yourself days when the whole proj-ect was just getting going. In October 2001, the first Wikipedian rule appeared. It was:

Ignore all rules: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.

The “ignore all rules” rule was written by co-founder Larry Sanger and signed by co-founder Jimbo Wales, along with WojPob, AyeSpy, OprgaG, Invictus, Koyaanis Qatsi, Pinkunicorn, sjc, mike dill, Taw, GWO, and Enchanter. There were two dissenters listed, tbc and AxelBoldt.

Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions—a symptom of something called instruction creep: defined in Wikipedia as something that happens “when instructions increase in number and size over time until they are unmanageable.” John Broughton’s book, at a mere 477 pages, cuts through the creep. He’s got a whole chapter on how to make better articles (“Don’t Suppress or Separate Controversy”) and one on “Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks.”

To be sure, these rules and hierarchies function differently than they did elsewhere, but they function nonetheless. Among the consequences of these rules and hierarchies is that some things that are written endure in ways that some other things do not. If not forever, then at least for a while.

I think, then, that we might say that we just haven’t developed our understanding yet of what might be possible with the net, and so we haven’t developed aesthetic categories appropriate to writing literature on the net.

The other thing to say here is that Sebastian Mary seems to assume that the inherent and necessary character of the net is the interactive elements of Web 2.0. I’m not sure why we need to make this leap. It is like saying that because something can be done, then doing that thing is the only appropriate thing to do. I kind of buy Mary’s assertion that the literary is about the completed object. But it’s not clear why we can’t imagine the web as a space that has both completed objects and never completed interactive spaces.

Indeed, blogs function in some respects as aspects of both, and I’m intrigued by how this could be a clue to a literature of the future. A blog post is, in some respects a completed object. Admittedly, i go back and rewrite and change things here and there, but at somepoint that kind of revision comes to an end. And in some ways it’s no different than the kind of endless revision that Whitman did, but eventually stopped doing on leaves of grass.

Commentary, however, doesn’t have to come to an end. I’m still getting responses to some of the first blog posts I wrote. Theoretically, these posts could remain objects for commentary for…well…forever. I’m not so vain as to believe that these posts are worth that, but it’s possible to imagine creating a literature that would be more or less permanent and fixed that is accompanied by a commentary that is endless. In this sense, the text would be both fixed and endlessly changing to the degree that people would read not only my fantasized literary post, but also the months, years, decades, centuries…who knows…of commentary that would accompany it.

Thus, I think I disagree with mary’s assumption that the web is inherently interactive and thus opposed to the literary for a variety of reasons, even while I agree that we haven’t quite figured out how to bridge the gap between what’s been in place related to that term, and what may be coming in to being.

Stop the hype! Inflationary reading crisis calls for interest cut

One of the features of our current reading crisis is that no one can agree if it even exists.
Jennifer Shuessler at the Nytimes points
with a notable degree of exhaustion at the fact that everyone and their mother seems to be talking about a crisis in reading. The tendency is, I suppose, to be jaded and assume that there is no crisis whatsoever, that it is all hype. A problem in a culture of hype is that when there really is something to pay attention to, we can’t distinguish between the reality and hype. Because we know there is hype, and can’t be sure there’s reality, we tend to think that every new publicized concern is more an issue of publicity than concern.

Shuessler points to Ursula LeGuin’s essay in Harpers, where she makes the case that serious readers have never been more than a minority anyway, so why worry.

“Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

This strikes me as an instance of jaded cynicism rather than ethical or cultural seriousness unless one views the reading of books as, already, a cultural option of little personal or social consequence. What, Le Guin would also say, then, that it makes no difference that millions of people have a literacy level that can, at best, consume comic books? So they can’t read Toni Morrison? Who cares? Well, I guess this is a position.

More seriously, Shuessler points to Caleb Crain’s blog that points out the many and diverse statements of readerly crisis that have been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Indeed, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, it’s possible to argue that imagining reading in crisis is a condition of reading in Western culture. How those crises are imagined may say a great deal more about the culture than they say about reading, but it is interesting nonetheless. In earlier centuries people worried that too many people were reading, then we believed that the wrong people were reading, then we worried that people read the wrong books. In the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, sociologists worried that people read too much, especially men. Since then, we’ve worried that people weren’t reading enough, a crisis that continues apace with renewed vigor in our own era.

I picked up the following titles from quick survey of article titles in the Saturday Review of Literature from mid-century. With a few adjustments, we could imagine them all coming out of interpretations of the latest NEA study.

“Why is it so difficult to interest reading public in good books?” (December 1 1934) p. 324

(Of course, now we are mostly worried about getting them interested in reading books at all. Even Rush Limbaugh. Bill O’Reilly? Please? Anything to ease my mind.)

“Bookless mind.” (November 10 1934) p. 272

(This is absolutely my favorite)

“Influence of books on people who do not read.” (July 24 1937) p. 13.

(I’m assuming this works something like radiation. Rub up next to me and let my literacy rub right off on you.)

“Can college graduates read?” (July 16 1938) p. 3-4+

(The resounding answer in 2007 tends to be no.)

“What a capitalist reads [one man’s literary meat].” (December 4 1943) p. 12-15

(No, I think this is my absolute favorite. I wonder, what is one man’s literary poultry? fruits and vegetables? A new Borgesian system of book classification is in the offing)

“Only half of us read books.”(August 5 1950) p. 22

(So many???)

“How to get time to read a book.”(September 29 1951) p. 5

(And this was before the internet, ipods, and tivo. It truly is miraculous we read at all if they worried about this in an era with three tv channels in black and white)

“Don’t Americans read or write?

. “(July 14 1951) p. 24-5.

(No, maybe this is, after all, my truly absolute favorite. Did Americans in 1951 really care what people in Lahore, Pakistan thought about us . This was before the bomb and Osama bin Laden, after all.)

As with hype, the recognition that reading has always been in crisis mode tempts us to think there is no crisis to worry about. Perhaps so. I’m more intrigued by why it is that reading must always be an occasion for crisis. Why have cultures always been so determined that reading is fenced in with all the right cultural taboos or mandates: done in just the right amounts, done by just the right people or by all the people, done with just the right books, carried forward in just the right ways—whether through academic classrooms or community enhancing book clubs.

One tentative hypothesis works better for theories worrying about social control. Reading’s essential isolation means that it must always remain an issue of concern and crisis for human sociality. I say essential isolation, because reading is always an act of the individual mind decoding for oneself. Even when one is reading aloud to others, listeners must affirm an act of faith that what is being read is what is on the page—easier in our age. Not so easy in antiquity where, for instance, in ancient Israel some towns were lucky to have even one person read. Reading’s essential isolation calls in to question or puts our necessary human sociality in to question.

Still, this works better for those eras that worried that the wrong people were reading, or that people were reading too much, or that people were reading the wrong things. Maybe we are in the ironic position in our own era of having become comfortable with the ways we’ve negotiated what was formerly a form of textual chaos. The book has been more or less tamed? The new chaos, the new threat, is the uncontrolled proliferation of text on the internet?

I’m not sure I go with this. A thought experiment. I still think books are less tame than they are sometimes assumed to be by digital utopians. I have yet to be changed by a web page in the ways that I have been changed by dozens of experiences with books that I can point to.

Books are old, but they don’t seem tame. Not yet. Not to me.

Blog on, readers, blog on

Sarah Boxer has a review of books on blogging in the most recent issue of New York Review of Books. Ok, at least it’s interesting to me since I am a relative latecomer to blogs and blogdom. In any case, it’s evident that blogs have become a major seller in the book industry, no matter how much those of us who are book aficionados worry that blogs are contributing to the demise of books and reading of books.

Who after all, has time for reading any more. I certainly don’t; I’ve got to get this blog written.

Anyway, a healthy sampling of the industry covered in Boxer’s review. These include, among many others:

We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture compiled and edited by John Rodzvilla,

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel

Republic.com 2.0by Cass R. Sunstein

Blogwars by David D. Perlmutter

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J. Solove

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age by Scott Gant

Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World by Hugh Hewitt

The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen

Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, foreword by Tom Peters

Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Cultureby David Kline and Dan Burstein

I’ve read none of these save for some excerpts on the web, but what I can gather from the titles and from those excerpts, as well as from a few extant interviews with several of these authors, most of them view the blogosphere with some fear and loathing. From what I’ve seen, this is unfair, but I did pick up a couple of good interviews that you can judge for yourselves, a video interview with Lee Siegel and a radio interview with Daniel Solove.

Get the interview with Solove here

Anyway, back to Boxer’s review. I’m most interested in what she has to say about the ways in which blogs change writing and reading. This, after all, is why I got started on this blog in the first place, thinking that it would be an interesting way to keep myself writing and thinking about reading—thinking all the while that I would be pointing toward a conventional book. I still think that, but I’m not quite so sure about how natural or inevitable the connections are. As one of my colleagues pointed out, we don’t even call it writing. We call it “blogging” as if we had to come up with a different verb to get at the phenomenon itself.

In Boxer’s words:

“Are they a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

“Reading blogs, it’s pretty clear, is not like reading a newspaper article or a book. Blog readers jump around. They follow links. They move from blogs to news clips to videos on YouTube, and they do it more easily than you can turn a newspaper page. They are always getting carried away—somewhere. Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don’t even stop to punctuate. And if they can’t put quite the right inflection on a sentence, they’ll often use an OMG (Oh my god!) or an emoticon, e.g., a smiley face 🙂 or a wink 😉 or a frown 😦 instead of words. (Tilt your head to the left to see the emoticons here.)

“Many bloggers really don’t write much at all. They are more like impresarios, curators, or editors, picking and choosing things they find on line, occasionally slapping on a funny headline or adding a snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment. Some days, the only original writing you see on a blog is the equivalent of “Read this…. Take a look…. But, seriously, this is lame…. Can you believe this?”

I’ve noticed all this, of course, in my own digital peregrinations, and it makes me think that I’m really not writing a blog at all. As I told a friend earlier today, I don’t think I really blog at all. I write too much, there are no pictures—or too few—and I don’t use four letter words with aplomb.

I also use words like “aplomb,” which is a sure sign of geekishness in blogworld.

I am also, in my general estimation, too organized for my own good. Thirty years of English studies have left me incapable of writing in something other than paragraph form. The one sentence paragraph still strikes me as an oxymoron, save for the occasional literary effect.

(Secret confession—I also go back and correct my blog grammar. Cardinal sin, I know, but I can’t help myself. I wish I could throw off subject/verb or number disagreements with the same aplomb—there’s that word again—that I see throughout the blogosphere, but I’m appalled when I find a misplaced modifier and wonder what kind of example I am setting for all those students whose lives are being ruined by poor grammar.)

More seriously though, I do think that the fragmentary and fluid quality of blogging is very different from the things we normally consider when thinking about critical reading and coherent argument. Does this matter? I tend to think it does. My guess is that students increasingly have difficult times making arguments, or having patience with extended arguments elsewhere, because they are more used to the kind of ad hominem and ejaculatory declamations they get on the web. “Dude, check out the moron talking about evolution on YouTube.” Of course, they get this from Bill O’Reilly any more as well, so perhaps we can’t blame blogging.

Secret confession II: I only use the word “ejaculatory” in written prose. Perhaps I am afraid my late adolescent students will start snickering in class. Perhaps I am afraid my inner adolescent will start snickering in class.

I have also noticed the tendency of bloggers to cite and not write. I’m intrigued by this. I see two things happening with the tendency for many blogs to be compilations of text and image pulled in from elsewhere. On the one hand, it’s the part of blogging that’s much more like conversation than it is traditional expository writing. It’s like sitting down with friends and saying, “Dude, check out this cartoon in the newspaper.”

Ok, so most people who use the word “dude” don’t read newspapers anymore, but you get my general drift. This part of blogging is like sharing things with friends. Correlatively, reading blogs is a little bit like sitting down to talk with friends.

The other thing that I think is going on is that the compilations are a kind of sampling. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, there’s a sense in which texts and images in the current world are more like raw materials that have to be compiled in new and interesting ways. Just as collage is interesting partly for the individual elements, but even more for the way those bits come together in a new whole. Whereas writing has usually been conceived of as commentary on or representation of an external world, there’s a way in which blogs are reorganizations of or recreations of the visual, verbal, and audible text of the internet. The internet is the external world and the blog is its recreation. A kind of perfect self-referentiality to the degree that bloggers eventually start sampling one another, as even I have done in this blog. Bloggers sample other bloggers, and one sign of your importance is the number of times others will say check this out, and then copy your whole blog in to theirs.

Boxer goes on to note the pervasive emphasis in the blogosphere on scatology, pornography, and profane invective. As she puts it.

“Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty. Whether bloggers tell the truth or really are who they claim to be is another matter, but WTF. They are what they write. And you can’t fake that. ;-)”

Well, she’s not wrong here, to the degree that I’ve bothered to plough around the blogosphere. On the other hand, I have noticed a generally different tone in blogs devoted to books and reading. They generally don’t get their work done with profanity or inane references to enlarged or swollen body parts. It may be that I don’t get out enough, but I see no books-and-reading bloggers out there making their way by telling people they disagree with to go do an anatomically impossible act to themselves or by telling the authors whose books they dislike to put their texts where the sun don’t shine.

(You see, I am far to polite, discreet, and refined to even spell out the bad words)

Seriously though, it seems to me that Boxer is wrong to make as grand and encompassing a characterization as she does. Blogs strike me as being as various as …well…books or conversation. Different regions of the blogosphere develop different tendencies and propensities, different likes and dislikes. One thing I like about blogs on books is that they don’t pretend that using profanity is somehow inherently useful, don’t assume that dirty jokes necessarily communicate anything worth thinking about, don’t assume that being shocking is the same thing as being insightful.

My guess is that book readers have reconciled themselves to their anonymity and have less need to be noticed on their blogs. By contrast, some bloggers are the internet equivalent of Brittany Spears. Anything to get attention.

I have no proof of any of this, but it seems to me that blogging is something like a third sphere, something different from either orality or literacy. Combining some aspects of both, but going beyond either with its nearly infinite ability to play the bricoleur.

AT least this is what I see as the possibility. I am a hopeless essayist. I need to let out my inner id. Let the blog flow. Death to the paragraph. Vive la Fragment. Spoken with a good French accent.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.

Photosynth and the Feebleness of Books

One of my very good students, Colin Chrestay, sent me the attached video of a techie at Microsoft showing off this staggering new software–software seems like too mild a word–in development called Photosynth. If you’re only interested in books, you can watch the first two minutes, but watch the whole thing. You really must watch the whole thing.

Stuff like this is just really staggering to me in seeing what is now possible via the web. (My guess is this is old hat to a great many people; but not to me). I don’t know enough about the specifics, and assume that this kind of thing is still a ways away from every person’s fingertips. But the realization that it isn’t inconceivable that every school child could explore every corner of the earth in three dimensions, from every angle and in the minutest detail to the broadest geographic and geological context…well, when I was my son’s age these were the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. I imagine it will be the normal day to day life of my grandchildren.

Re. books, the feebleness of books. Well, I guess I don’t completely think that books are feeble, but this kind of thing just makes clear to me again that there are many things for which the electronic world is clearly superior to anything that book culture could imagine. To insist otherwise does, I think, verge on a snobbish version of luddite-ism.

For instance, when I was growing up on books, a selling point for reading was that books allowed you to experience multiple places and cultures in the world, to travel to places in your imagination that you could never access with your body. And I don’t think there was anything spurious in that claim. But how this raison d’etre pales in comparison to seeing these worlds in three dimensions. Imagine that you wanted to know about mountain climbing in the Himilayas. I am sure there is still a very big place for books on this subject, but how much more impoverished that experience would be for the students who won’t have access to the kind of experience that photosynth can provide.

As a result, it seems to me that we need to think clearly about just what it is that books give us access to in terms of form or content that can’t be accessed in the same way via these kinds of technology. Among other things, of course, we might say that books are a good source for exploring the possibilities of language. And one traditional distinction between novels and movies seems to me to still hold for the visuality of the internet. Books, texts in language, are better media for exploring the intricacies of the human pscyhe, better access to the interior world than the visual world of technology typically allows for. Perhaps we need both novels and autobiographies by mountain climbers, and photosynth representations of mountain climbing, to get our strongest human approximation of what it must be like to climb in the Himalayas.

Secondly, of course, I’m intrigued by the degree in this video that books and newspapers are a passing mention. Indeed, the brief nod to Dickens’ Bleak House seems to be mostly about the fact that we could put the whole of Bleak House into a simultaneous view, something the presenter agrees is not necessarily a great way to read a book. And the bit on newspapers seems to be about trying to make the experience of reading a traditional newspaper more available for the digital reader. One wants to say why. It’s neat that we can do this, but peculiarity of these moments in the video suggest to me the ways in which these technologies create different forms of experience that are not compatible with books or newspapers as traditionally conceived.

I admit that when I see videos like this, I mostly think that the digital utopians have won the day. That I should fold my tents and go home.

Nevertheless, it still seems to me that the task is to figure out what the precise role of reading traditional texts really is; what particular role do traditional forms of reading and writing have to play in our present moment. What can the reading of texts provide, what skills can it enable, that are difficult (impossible?) to develop in any other way. Of course, we can continue to read without worrying about these things, simply because we like reading books more than other things, but my guess is that this will mean that reading books will become an increasingly arcane hobby–something a little like collecting rare books or writing on typewriters is today. Something that is done and enjoyed, something for which there is even a minimal market, but something that is mostly a curiosity rather than a serious cultural enterprise.

Miscellany: More Literary Politics, Teleread.org, arbiters of celebrity, Technomyth 101

Stephen King, Kingmaker?

The literary sweepstakes continue. News reports tell us that Stephen King has thrown his very considerable weight behind Obama.

This may be a good thing. Barack’s rather weighty reading list, his endorsement by His Weirdness Michael Chabon and by Her Highness Oprah Winfrey, and his rather stunning eloquence have left him in distinct danger of not being pegged as a “regular guy.”

Given that I doubt Obama is going to be out stomping through a field with a 12 gauge in his hand, it’s probably a good thing that a literary celebrity known for mayhem, murder and mystery has his back. Stephen King is the everyman’s literary favorite, and Obama doesn’t even have to read him. (Personal aside: I think King is one of the most interesting and bizarre self-reflexive writers on the pathologies of writing and reading. I hope to have a chapter on him in the book I am currently fantasizing about).

Teleread makes me a star.

Teleread.org’s David Rothman has proven once again why he is one of the smartest people out there writing about the current state of digital books and literature. Primarily because he gave my blog about the pathologization of solitude and its effect on reading a big plug. My blog stats—not that I pay ANY attention to them–nearly doubled. Nice to get in to double figures (heh, heh).

Seriously though, there are literally thousands of sites out there devoted to books and reading in one way or another, many of them very good. So I have been pretty choosey about what I put on my blogroll—only the things about books and reading I actually bother to read regularly set alongside a few close friends who write about various and sundry. Teleread is, I think, one of the best sites for trying to think through—and listen to others think through—the issues and news surrounding e-books and digital literacy generally. There seems to be a sensible assumption that reading books online is not going away, but the site isn’t clogged with folks I sometimes derisively call digital utopians. There’s an effort to be self-critical, and comments that question ruling assumptions about digital books or internet culture generally are welcome. It’s very much worth a look.

Techno myths go to school.

In his most recent blog, Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the huge gap between the mythology that kids can now basically teach themselves on the internet and the actual facts about kids ability to judge and assimilate online materials. He cites an ETS study that gives a rather grim picture of students ability to sort through the waves of things they find on the net:

The report concluded: “Few test takers demonstrated key ICT literacy skills” (ICT is short for Information and Communications Technology). Only 35 percent of the subjects could narrow an overly broad search properly, and only 40 percent of them chose the right terms to tailor a search effectively. In constructing a slide presentation, only 12 percent of them stuck to relevant information.

Among some other things in the report that Bauerlein doesn’t cite is the following:

When asked to evaluate a set of
Web sites for objectivity, authority and timeliness . . .

– 52% judged the objectivity of the sites correctly
– 65% judged the authority of the sites correctly
– 72% judged the timeliness of the site correctly
– Overall, only 49% of test-takers identified the one
website that met all criteria

Even allowing for some margin of error, it still seems we’re a good ways away from the possibility of doing away with teachers entirely. And of course, this says very little about the ability of students to interpret and assimilate such materials into writing of their own—something that the testimony of writing in intro composition classes suggests might be very dismal indeed.

This speaks again to my general sense that the argument offered by digital utopians that people are reading just as much as ever, they’re just reading on the web, isn’t really an argument, it’s a platitude. We need to be thinking about what students are reading, how they are reading it, in what contexts, and how they put that reading to use. We would then be in a better place to judge what we are gaining and losing by the fact that students are no longer reading or wanting to read traditional long form texts.

In Praise of Shyness, Solitude, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (And All Other Personality Disorders Associated with Reading): Or, What’s Wrong With Being Disconnected?

A review posted on spiked-online.com, “Humanity, Though Art Sick,” discusses Christopher Lane’s new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. Among other things it appears that Lane discusses the exponential pathologization of the human race at the hands of the American Psychiatric Association, with particular emphasis on the way shyness or a tendency toward introversion has gradually come to be seen as a deviation from human normality.

A couple of excerpts from Helene Guldberg’s review:

‘In my mother’s generation, shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill.’

So writes the Chicago-based research professor, Christopher Lane, in his fascinating new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. ‘Adults admired their bashfulness, associated it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It is a disease. It has a variety of over-wrought names, including “social anxiety” and “avoidant personality disorder”, afflictions said to trouble millions’, Lane continues.….

Lane writes: ‘Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added “social phobia”, “avoidant personality disorder”, and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this 500-page volume… the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”.’ Shyness now allegedly almost rivals depression in magnitude, a ‘sickness’ for which ‘almost 200million prescriptions are filled every year’ in the USA. Apparently, social phobia – shyness – ‘has become a pandemic’, says Lane….

The sad consequence of this state of affairs is that the range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

In general this book—at least based on the review—seems simpatico with the recent essay by Eric Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher education (Yes, the essay that I generally dissed in an earlier post, but which I still think was topically interesting. According to Wilson:

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

I’m not sure that this amounts to a backlash, but anecdotally it does seem to me that there’s been a little more questioning of the notion that we ought to get rid of every hiccup in our emotional well-being. Recently a mother of one of my children’s friends told me they had taken their child off mood-altering medication. The child has responded with new confidence in class and by growing two inches in two months. Re. moods….Maybe there’s something OK about feeling that there’s something askew in a world where men and women are coming home maimed from a foreign war in which they’ve done far more maiming of women and children than our own country would ever politically endure in its wildest dreams or nightmares. Maybe it’s Ok for a teenager to feel that they don’t fit in so well with the in crowd. I think we think every such teenager is on the brink of Columbine. Maybe feeling a little disconnected will lead them to … read books. Hey, maybe it’s Ok to not feel wonderful, and maybe, just maybe it’s Ok to not want to join in with the gang all the time. Gangs, after all, are called gangs for good reason.

For my own purposes, I’m intrigued by the degree to which behaviours often associated with reading fall along the lines of…well…currently defined personality disorders. I mean, read the history of readers from Jean Toomer to Richard Rodriguez to Anna Quindlen. (To Pete Powers, if I had an autobiography out there that anyone would read). We are not, for the most part, the types who are great joiners. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my heroes. A person who spends her life alone in a room, apparently, about 14 hours a day, doing little more than disgorging words in to a computer.

Indeed, I remember as a college student reading an essay wherein Walker Percy says something like there’s nothing more alienating for a sad and lonely person than reading a book about happy people while sitting on a bus full of happy people. (Actually, I think there is something more alienating in my experience; attending a party full of happy people and not having anything at all on hand to read, not even a book about happy people). By contrast, the happiest thing in the world for such a person is to read a story about a sad and lonely person while sitting sad and lonely on a bus.

Percy didn’t make me want to go out and join a book group. He did make me smile and ask “How did he know?” I didn’t have to be with Walker Percy and share a hot toddy to know I was not alone, less alone than I often feel at parties with people sharing hot toddies. (Which, as I think of it, I never am since hot toddies are from Louisiana and I don’t think they know how to make them in Pennsylvania.)

This leap is full of logical fallacies, but it seems to me no accident that the apparent decline in reading of fiction and of levels of reading comprehension has accompanied the pathologization of solitude in American culture. It hasn’t just been the American Psychiatric Association. It’s been in business with business models that emphasize working groups rather than individual initiative. It’s been in religion and it’s been in the discussion of family values.

(Let me say that although I am a Democrat I nearly became nauseated when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards proclaimed in their last debate “We’re all family.” Good Grief. It’s enough to make one think again about John McCain. Anything to escape the cloying grip of politics family style. We aren’t a village or a family. We are a big beast of a country, largely run by a military-industrial complex intricately intertwined with a system of global finance and corporate capitalism that even leading economists admit that they can’t fully comprehend. I would like to believe that our politicians realize we don’t want the country run by our Aunt Joe or Uncle Sue. No accident that John McCain spent five years alone in a brutal cell. He learned something all the joiners may never figure out).

Above all things, of course, the ideology of the internet–with its relentless drumbeat of connection, connection, connection–teaches us that lonerdom is peculiar and worthy of suspicion . Ever faster, ever more omnipresent, ever more inescapable. The compulsion to “friend”–the ubiquitous and sad new verb of our era–utter strangers. Even those that critique the internet as not really connecting us at all—as Lee Siegel apparently does in in his newest book on internet culture—even these critics exalt the ideal of connectedness above all else. Internet connection is bad, not because connection is worthy of thought or criticism, but because the internet purportedly does not provide true and authentic connection and community. Everyone and their mother exalts community and connectedness. What new pill or what technology or what community reading program will get us there? Whereas dictatorships control readers and writers by shooting them, we control them by pathologizing the behaviours that might lead…horrors…to hours spent alone doing God knows what.

Indeed, why read anymore at all to confirm the importance of your own solitude and sadness. Take a pill, you’ll feel better in the morning. Or join a book group.

At moments like this I feel like becoming a back-to-the-lander.

Let it be said, maybe we are too connected. Maybe we need more solitude. Maybe we need more silence without the relentless need to hear (or see on screen) the clattering voices of someone else, as if we are too afraid to listen to the clattering voices in our own imagination.

In this spirit, I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the advent of bookglutton.com (though, in the spirit of America the connected, I’m planning on joining up), which I discovered on a blog at teleread.org this morning. At Bookglutton, you read books collectively online with others, viewing their comments on every page as you go along. Every book a blog. No longer the absorbed attention that borders on the mystical that we experience in traditional intensive reading, caught up in the alternative world created by another’s imagination. Instead, now, even reading books will be like attending movies where one-third of the audience converses on cell phones, another third texts friends on the opposite side of the theater, and the final third feels compelled to engage everyone around them with their commentary–as if they were afraid they might be sitting alone in the dark.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something pathological about this need to connect? Is it possible that a people who has lost the capacity for contented solitude, or even discontented solitude, who has not learned to embrace its own loneliness, is it possible that such a people is maybe just a little bit sick?

Now that you have finished reading my blog, write me a comment. Please. I am feeling disconnected. And lonely. And Sad.

I think I’ll take a pill. Or find someone to friend.