11.14.2004

Planned Obsolescence

The Book Guys talk with Mark Bauerlein of the National Endowment for the Arts about the recent survey of reading habits in the US.

It's dismal news all around, but it gets worse. Wired magazine brags about the school of tomorrow: "Media Center: The library is designed less for books and more for interaction--online and in meatspace. Bookshelves of wheels, overstuffed chairs, and Wi-Fi create a coffeehouse vibe." Woo hoo. The library is no longer a library but a media center--if that name change doesn't tell the whole story, I don't know what does.

Book Guys mourn how the videotape is replacing the essay in some schools. This is not the primary problem, however. The primary problem is when we become incapable of dissecting what people are truly telling us (which mostly involves the how of telling--see below). We can peer beyond the flashy advertisement world we live in--yes, even Wired is designed for our eye-catching age. Unless we can peer beyond words, see them, and break them down in front of our eyes, we will become victims of all the master word-wielders. (Surely there's a story idea there.)

As we read less, how will we know which few books to stock in our shrinking library (but hey, we can push the books around on wheels--how cool is that)? Can we blame declining reading rates entirely on computer games? Can we blame ourselves? Laura Miller at the NY Times suggests maybe it's true. Putting aside Matthew Cheney's eloquent rebuke of popularity for the moment, Miller points out that all the National Book Award nominees "[hang their collective] hat on sidestepping readerly expectations."

Miller goes on to point out that two aren't even novels but "dispensed in fragments reminiscent of prose poems. One good thing about prose poems is that they aren't very long, and one good thing about novels is that, while long, they aren't prose poems."

But her most potent point, which some writers and many writer-wanna-bees may bemoan, is that "[m]ost of us, if forced to choose, will pick a strong story over perfect writing.... Readers, as a rule, care more about what an author writes; other writers are often more impressed with how. Beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states abound in these five books, but those woebegone souls in search of a good story will have to keep looking, elsewhere."

Don't get me wrong. I am crucially concerned with the how--the how affects the what, without doubt. But I worry that we've put way so much emphasis on the how that we've forgotten the what. To paraphrase, the Buggles: did writers kill the literary star?

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