Sunday, January 20, 2008


The first week of the new semester is over. The fun and thrills of shopping-period has begun to die down. The week before that was busy with flurries of excitement from the campaign trail as numerous pundits debated whether or not Hilary Clinton was truly “likeable” and whether Barack Obama, whom Clinton herself called “very likeable,” was now less likeable for having told Clinton she’s “likeable enough.” It seems to me that, as with much of what he says, Obama was being honest, if perhaps too positive. But no matter, he’s been losing ever since Clinton appealed to the pathos of what it would feel like to be an aging woman married to Bill Clinton and not win her party’s nomination (sob!).

Another thing that got my attention (thanks to my friend Barry’s facebook posting of it) was Tom Hodgkinson’s “outing” of the libertarian, quasi-fascist, proto-Big Brother manipulators behind facebook. TH, whose mag The Idler seems to decry our abandonment of books and chatting over dominoes in the town square in favor of online virtual relationships and email, maintains a blog (complete with banner ads), but inveighs against what he sees as a willful surrender of one’s pertinent personal information so as to be targeted unto death by cyber hucksters of all stripes. So far I can’t say that Big Brother seems particularly interested in my list of favorite movies and books, but the day banner ads zero in on my preferences and start hawking Ulysses (“the one book you can’t die without having read!” “eggheads the world-over agree, ‘it’s really long, but worth it’”) and Rimbaud (“the original punk!”), well, it will seem like an improvement, I think. In any case, the essay did put a spotlight on a simple fact of our interconnected world: we buy things and use things and interact with others via things that place us in debt to people we’d rather not benefit. But when, except in some utopian space of collectives and communes, has it ever been otherwise? So why is facebook part of the evil empire? Because it makes people spend more time on their computers and y’know just because you share cyber space together that doesn’t make you friends.

Another sally against the online world that interested me I only came upon through a response it garnered from a “letter to the editor” at n+1. Apparently, the journal (a paper copy of which I thank my friend Rob for sending me) had featured some coverage, by Marco Roth, of blogs, which concluded “so much typing, so little communication.” The reader response, from Garth Risk Hallberg, was one I was basically in sympathy with: “Serious literary bloggers see themselves precisely as an antidote to a vertically integrated media sector and a closed-circuit publishing industry.” But I have to admit that Hallberg sounds a bit stridently defensive, his blog’s seriousness impugned and that damned “media sector” not recognizing his purposiveness, dammit! Mainly I was interested to see that Roth bemoaned the fact that “People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000-word critiques of their favorite books or records. . . . But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough….” C’est la vie! People could’ve used their phones to reveal their innermost thoughts, people could’ve used television to broadcast live improvisational theater, people could’ve used cinema to move beyond traditional stage and print-bound strictures of storytelling, the radio to maintain a constant flow of music never heard before . . . Why bad mouth the blogosphere for failing where every creative technology fails. We’re frivolous people, people, and most of us like it that way!

But all’s not dark yet (even if it’s getting there). After all, it was thanks to my friend Andrew’s blog that I happened upon “Twilight of the Books,” a piece from the New Yorker by Caleb Crain that looked at the drop-off in numbers of people who admit to reading books (how 19th century!), and came up with this: “In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.” As Crain notes: “But if the change is permanent, and especially if the slide continues, the world will feel different, even to those who still read.” Amen to that, the world as presented by television has never made sense to me, so the fact that the world will continue to feel more alienating is something downright comforting at this point.

The article made me feel I should read more, so I spent most of the day Saturday doing just that. I’m still making headway through Tony Judt’s Postwar – I got through the ‘60s which he underplays mightily, clearly he’s not “a fan.” But it's clear that the only thing historians do is tell you what happened, they don't have to think about what what happened might mean. Still, I’m looking forward to his coverage of the period of my adulthood, if only to relive my "angry young man" days. I also got through half of Peter Cowie’s account of the ‘60s cinema, particularly European, which is mostly reminiscence about how grand it was to be involved in movies then. If the book doesn’t make you want to become an auteur, nothing will. Speaking of auteurs, I’ve recently gotten on this kick to learn more about the late, great (possibly greatest of them all), Ingmar Bergman, and started Cowie's "critical biography" of the man. It’s gratifying, at the start of this “background check” (as it were) to hear many a post-nouvelle vague notable cite The Seventh Seal as the film that performed the great ‘ah ha’ (not least of such being Godard himself, whose À bout de souffle Cowie adds to The Rites of Spring and Ulysses (and I guess, latterly, Dylan going electric?) in that list of provocative epiphanies of what “now” is possible).

People might have continued to make films like the ‘60s auteurs did, and people might have flocked by the thousands to view them at the quality theaters (instead of arthouse dives)showing them, or, worse, instead of having to watch them on the worse of the two video technologies developed . . . might have . . . might have . . .

Speaking of cinema . . . well, more next time . . .

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)


Andrew Shields said...

5000-word critiques? I'd settle for 500. (A much more manageable length.)

Your litany of "might've" got a song going in my head. A Dead song (of course?), the one the fans called "Mighty Swell"!

Donald Brown said...

Don't know the Dead song, but I agree about length. That's what I found reading some of the pieces in n+1: too damn long, blogs are more compressed and often more pointed.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm sure you do know the song, but under its real name: "Might As Well".

For the oral exams that I give every semester, I look for texts of about 1000 words as the basis for discussion. Back in the nineties, it was easy to find 1000-word texts. But it has become more difficult, as the web has made it less necessary to compress what one writes, so I have had to up the range to about 1300 or even 1400 words.