The Failure to Commit: Did You Finish Your Summer Reading Project?

“Reading Woman” by Matthieu Wiegman

I have a spotty record of finishing summer reading projects. Yes, I loved The Tale of Genji in 2016, but this past summer of SF I barely cracked open an SF book.  I preferred Jo Walton’s brilliant collection of essays, An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, to two actual SF novels, Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer and John Crowley’s Aegypt.

Does this mean I cannot commit?

It is a bloggers’ tradition to commit to whimsical summer reading. This summer there was the Full Monte, a cleverly-named discussion of The Count of Monte Cristo; the Classics Club, The Books of Summer, All August All Virago, and Women in Translation Month.  Coming up is Victober, a reading of Victorian novels in October, sponsored by various vloggers at BookTube and a Goodreads group.  Since every month is Victober here, I will inadvertently participate.

Such bookish fun is a little too quixotic.  I prefer book clubs where all read the same book. (And so The Full Monte gets my vote of approval.) My husband and I, in our scruffier years, used to walk to the lake (where we never swam, because of dead fish and pollution) and read Betty MacDonald’s humor books aloud under a tree. More recently, we had a lunchtime Joseph Conrad book club. This year we’re reading an interminable Solzhenitsyn book.

Everything is undoubtedly more fun on the internet, though you might have to be a Millennial or of the “I” gen to enjoy it.  Take a look at the adorable book site, Bookish, which sponsors a Bookish Bingo game for its September Reading Challenge.  I would never do this; still, kudos to “red or orange cover.” And, let’s face it, I’ll have a Bingo without playing.

Why am I wary about cute internet reading projects?  Well, it is like interplanetary butterflies humming and hovering over different genera of flowers but never hovering or humming over the same flowers. (Is that what I mean?  And is it SF?)

I recently read David Ulin’s brilliant book, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. (And I wrote about it here).  He discusses the internet interruptions that impede our reading books.  The internet actually rewires our brains so we need constant fixes.  In 2008, Ulin became so addicted to newsfeeds about the election that he could barely get off the net–and he could not get lost in a book.

Many critics have written about the triviality of social media.  Ulin quotes David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. Denby writes, “The trouble with today’s snarky pipsqueaks who break off a sentence or two, or who write a couple of mean paragraphs, is that they don’t go far enough; they don’t have a coherent view of life.”

Ulin does not entirely agree with Denby’s critique, but he explains the gist of it:

What Denby is lamenting is the lack of a larger framework, the absence of any wider point of view.  That’s the problem with the culture of the comments thread, which, for all its pretense toward open conversation, adds up to little more than a collection of parallel monologues.

It is difficult to conduct a meaningful conversation in parallel monologues. Certainly I do not have the facility.  What can a couple of lines in a comment possibly signify?  We try, but I succeed only as a cheerleader.

So let’s recover our hippie reading life, the best response to a noisy, muddled world.

To quote Joni Mitchell:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

Reading Interrupted!

Multi-tasking is for suckers taintor 009_01463-500x500Those of us who grew up in the age of letter-writing worry about the future of writing.  There is so much e-mailing, tweeting, texting, commenting, and posting that the necessary attention for any long-form writing, let alone letters, is dying.

It can even affect our reading.

I am all about reading.  It’s what I do.  Before the internet, I read at least six hours a day.   I still read a great deal, but it is in a different, more itinerant style. Instead of reading one book, I always have a couple on the go.   It is a process I call legendum interruptum  (“reading interrupted” –you know, like coitus interruptus!).  The temptation to check my e-mail (and what am I looking for?) was irresistible, until I realized my typical e-mail says: “Your order has been shipped!,” or “Flash Sale: English National Opera (Save 40%).”

After some of my longer, more futile sessions on the internet, I used to feel a bit like Mildred, the empty housewife, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

In  Bradbury’s dystopian classic, the metaphor for not reading is not the internet, which was not yet invented, but addiction to interactive TV. Books are banned, and firemen do not put out fires; they burn books.  The hero, Guy, a fireman, enjoys the burnings, but his personal life is empty. The morning after his wife, Mildred, makes a suicide attempt, she is so absorbed in a new big-screen TV interactive gimmick that she remembers nothing about taking the sleeping pills.

She explains the gimmick to Guy.

“They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ And I say–‘ She paused and ran her finger under a line on the script. ‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?”

Truffaut's film, "Fahrenheit 451"

                     Truffaut’s film, “Fahrenheit 451”

Does this sound familiar? I am dismayed to say that it does to me. My comments on the internet are very much of the “I sure do!” variety. Friendly bloggers comment at my blog; I comment at their blogs. It is a supportive activity. Obviously I do not want to leave unfriendly comments. But I am embarrassed that I have little to say except: “Wonderful review!” or “This sounds great.” We obviously cannot write letters in response to every blog,But since I am not a witty one-liner, should I continue to comment?

I need to read, and really cannot do without it. On vacations, I do not care to hike the Berkie Trail or see Paris.  No, I  have spent vacations reading Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Anne Tyler in a cabin or, better yet, our favorite motel by the sea, a converted chicken coop!

When we stayed in the converted chicken coop, our days went something like this.

  1.   Walk to the Big Zero (a convenience store) and buy two huge cups of coffee.  Drink coffee and read till 10 a.m., when we get dressed to go the beach.
  2. Bike to the beach.  Sit on a towel and get out a book to read. Do I want to go swimming?  Heavens, no, I haven’t  been in that germy sea in years.
  3. Go to J&B Subs for lunch.  Sit on the picnic table and read.
  4. Go back to the motel.  Loll on the couch (the rooms are huge!) and read until three, when you  go to the beach again.
  5. Go to dinner.  No reading at dinner, so we have to converse!
  6. Go out for homemade ice cream or coffee and read on the pier.
  7. Go home and read some more.  Oh, except that night you watched that terrifying movie Flatliners, on late-night TV. A big mistake! I couldn’t sleep that night!
  8. Number of books read on vacation:  seven.  Number of swims:  zero.  Number of crabcakes eaten: six.

Do you know this kind of vacation?  I’ll bet you do.

We’ve got to love the internet, but “do” it more gently. Another reading vacation is coming up soon.

Is Conversation Necessary?

                      “The Women,” 1939

You move to a small town in Texas, the Midwest, or Upstate New York.  It hardly matters.

Population:  700 or 7,000

Bookstores:  None

Libraries:  do not have the classics and out-of-print books you need.

Technology:  Superior!

And so you are on the computer, phone, or tablet 24/7.  When you wake up in the middle of the night, you check your email. It doesn’t seem normal, but who is your best friend? The kind people who help you scan your passport at O’Hare, or your computer?  It should be the people, but it is the computer.  (I am leaving family off this list, because they are family!)

And that’s why I was interested in Jessica Love’s review in The American Scholar of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

anne taintor shopping 27aca604e0d45210680200ba25ea2d11I am banned from reading book reviews until March 2016.  I am on an (Almost) Zero-Spending program because I spent £95 at the London Review Bookshop,  £30 at the Persephone Bookshop, and,  thank God,  less at the used bookstores!  Is it possible to buy books without checking the prices?  I am, however,  allowed to read book blogs, because the pace is less urgent.   Bloggers are so eclectic–some read only out-of-print books–that I am happy just to put the books on the list and think about them.

I actually wasn’t aware that Jessica Love’s article, “We Need to Chat: How technology,” was a review until I clicked on it.

We need this kind of review/article to interpret society nowadays. Love says that Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation, reports that Facebook, email,  texts, etc., are destroying our ability to focus on a subject and have meaningful conversations. In 2012, a study at Essex University found that  students who were paired off to converse with each other for 10 minutes were so distracted by a phone on a nearby desk that they lacked empathy for and were less trusting of each.

Jessica Love writes:

It was the intimacy of conversations that really took a hit, the researchers found. When discussions were casual, the cell phone on the desk made little difference. But when conversations touched on more meaningful topics, the device—though it remained still, silent, off to the side, and unanswered—discouraged conversation partners from warming to one another.

I often joke that I haven’t had a conversation in 15 years. I chat with my relatives and a few friends, but we seldom talk about anything deep.  Is it necessary to be profound?   I used to tell everyone what was on my mind.  Why am I less serious?  Is this a less serious age?  Do we have to be Stephen Colbert?  (Do you think Stephen Colbert is funny?)

I miss seriousness.

I can’t say I am a researcher on the internet, but I have noticed a few things.

1 The Occupy Wall Street Movement n 2011 was adorable.  “We are the 99%.”  Possibly untrue, but I liked the sound of it.  However, I could not help but notice that the protestors couldn’t focus.   What were they protesting?  They couldn’t say.  Bankers?  Debt?  The website adds, “The sanctity of individual privacy,”  and “Making technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute.”  Isn’t privacy on the internet an oxymoron?  Has the internet interrupted their train of thought?  Is my skepticism a hearkening back to the ’60s and ’70s, when we were able to organize groups around promoting specific goals, such as  legalized abortion, equal pay for equal rights, the end of the Vietnam War, etc.?  Could we do that because we conversed face-to-face instead of online?

2.  As a blogger, I have noticed  a movement of what I call “parallel  blogging.” Instead of discussing a single book, as  one does in book clubs, many talented blogger/readers volunteer to read one or two books from, say, a list of 25  posted by a lovely blogger.   I am happy to participate in a year-long reading of The Forsyte Saga, but I have never been able to comprehend the point of a 24-hour-readathon.  Bloggers register for the readathon and read and tweet and post and provide links to other participants’  blogs until I am dizzy.  The new way of parallel participation isn’t bad, it is simply different. I am a part of this culture but I am also apart from it.

Do we need more conversation?  Or is Sherry Turkle wrong?

Loser vs. Loser: Why We Love Reality Shows

The finalists on Masterchef: Stephen, Claudia (the winner), and Derrick.

The finalists on Masterchef: Stephen, Claudia (the winner), and Derrick.

Everybody loves to see a loser win.

Tonight on MasterChef, finalists Stephen, Derrick, and Claudia struggled to cook the best dishes for a prize of $250,000 and the publication of their own cookbook.

But would reality TV be so popular without the rise of amateur culture on the internet?

The internet and reality TV came of age together in the ’90s and the first decade of the 21st century.

According to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the production and consumption of commodities have been replaced in postmodern society by the “hyperreality” of simulations:   images, spectacles, and the play of signs replace the concepts of production and class conflict.

Certainly Americans like their simulations:  according to Nielsen reports, the average American adult spends 11 hours per day using electronic media (TV, smartphones, computer, etc.).

And now that amateurs have their own culture online, we want to watch it on TV, too.  Losers have their chance to win.

Day job:  waitress.  Night life:  blogger and artist.  Yup, she writes film criticism, posts her quirky illustrations, and tapes her dramatic one-woman show of the Ophelia scenes in Hamlet.   Is she as mad as Ophelia? She is sure one of her blog readers is Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet in the production at the Barbican)!  If she dyes her hair blond and sleeps with a director, she WILL be on a reality show and then play Ophelia!

The internet is fun because we don’t have to be too serious.  We can post casual reviews or essays.

At one time I thought it might provide the ideal community. Remember the Well?  But in 20 years, I have seen dozens of online groups rise and fall. Even with a glossier presentation of the real self, the online personae frequently crack up. There are many, many silly, trivial arguments in Yahoo discussion groups, where membership  has waned drastically in recent years, replaced by other social media.  Online friends turn on each other, because they’re narcissistic or nerdy, mad or malicious.  Here’s a good thing: I don’t see arguments at Goodreads.

Reality shows are more honest than the internet, you think.  You see who the winners and losers are.

Well, hardly.

The contestants are losers, as defined by our culture.  On MasterChef, they’re usually working-class, artistic but underemployed, or barely white-collar.  Derrick is a drummer from Fort Myers, Florida; Claudia, a Mexican-American mom and an events manager who lives in a really crummy one-bedroom apartment; and Stephen Lee is an urban gardener who wildly heckles other and seems borderline-Tourettes. Yet they were neck-and-neck in creating beautiful, delicious food.

Artistic Derrick should undoubtedly have won for his eclectic contemporary gourmet food:  the pan-seared venison with root vegetables in huckleberry sauce in a puff-pastry lattice cage was breathtaking.  The lattice cage formed an arch over the venison.  Actually, the judges adored it and were wowed by his plating.

But they gave the prize to Claudia, a lovely, poised person who elevated Mexican food.  I got the impression they gave it to her because they liked her story.  Perhaps they liked the idea of helping a single mom.  She always cooked Mexican food.  Derrick was a gourmet, a true artist.

And so winning is arbitrary, no?

Stuck on the Internet

At the coffeehouse.

At the coffeehouse.

I have been online half the day.

“Get out of the house!” I told myself.

I know addictive behavior when I see it.

I had no pleasure in surfing the net, and yet I couldn’t stop.  It had been like that for a couple of days.

I am the person who was never supposed to be an addict. See me?  “That’s me in the corner…” chatting, drinking Diet Coke.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
–“Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.

“You’ll never have an addictive personality,” my doctor once said with satisfaction.

But, alas, on my Nook tablet, I click all afternoon between my book and my email.  I preferred my Original Nook (which broke), because it barely could get on the internet.

So I go out and walk.

I can breathe outside. I am not clicking on a screen.  It’s raining, but I smell the mud and watch the leaves fall.

I stop for coffee.  There is a minimal sense of human connection at a coffeehouse, which I very much need after a day on the internet.  You recognize the same people from day to day, or at least some of them, and you can nod to them if you’re feeling sociable.  And you don’t have that crazy impulse to (almost) reply to a tweet of Ron Charles, the Book Editor of the Washington Post, when he says he is the last one to publish a review of Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch  (on the actual publication date).  He might have been surprised to hear from me, since he doesn’t know me:  “Thanks! I get tired of reading reviews before the books are out.”

No, I love my coffee.

“Friedrich’s is the best,” another walker said as I strolled down the street sipping from my cup with the logo.

“Yes, I agree!”

If it had been a little quieter at the coffeehouse, I might have sat in a comfortable chair.  I had a book with me, The Diary of Anais Nin.

But it’s a bit crowded today.

And so I go on.

Down the tree-lined street with the meridian, past the houses for sale that I always want to buy even if they’re in a bad neighborhood, past the Little Free Library, which is not kept well-stocked, and features mainly thrillers and Guides for Idiots, and for once there are no dog walkers.

And I am not online.

And I want to read my book.

And I don’t know how I’m going to read if I have to be online all the time.

Today Brian Loging at his excellent blog The Wannabe Saint discussed our society’s obsession with zombies.

I have seen the undead at times walking in the mall, waiting in a check-out line, jogging down a street. Heads down, mouth mumbling, staring at a screen.

And I hate to think that this is me.

I don’t actually have my device out in public, because I don’t have a phone.

But I need more quiet than I’ve had lately.

I know how to provide this quiet.  Turn everything off.