Tag Archives: culture

Blogging, so yesterday

Well, I’ve been away from this for awhile. I was at the Northeast MLA conference in Buffalo for one thing. For another, we’ve been having a furious though civil online discussion about race and racism amongst the faculty at my college. Finally, April is the cruelest month, at least at my school. Even as I feel “caught up” as of today, I just got 25 papers to grade by next Tuesday. Anyhoo, it means that there hasn’t been much time for thinking, much less blogging over the past several weeks, as the relative dearth of new material suggests.

Hope to have some new stuff to blog about Jeff Gomez’s book Print is Dead, and my experiences reading Treasure Island on Book Glutton. Also a couple of interesting things I picked up on reading from the conference. For the moment, I’ll just say that I discovered over at the Chronicle of Higher Education that in the week I’ve been away from my blog, blogging has become passe.

Hurley Goodall tells me that

“Blogs May Be Rendered Obsolete by New Technology!!!!!”

Figures. I thought blogging made me the It prof.

Should have known that by the time I discovered it blogging would be yesterday’s leftovers.

I don’t quite follow all the terminology, but apparently the problem is that new RSS technology hijacks the discussion on the blog away from the originator of the material–I guess that’s me, folks–and situates it in a different point in hyperspace.

Goodall wonders: “If discussion moves away from blogs themselves, one wonders if bloggers would still have incentive to publish.”

Well, in the first place, I think I would be flattered to discover that my blog meant enough that someone wanted to bother hijacking it and talking about it anywhere. I feel incredibly lucky to be getting about 40 to 50 hits a day, which makes me laughable to some of these blogomaniacs out there. To be honest, I got started on this thing thinking that I might get four or five people a week bothering to stumble across it. So I’m not completely sure that getting four or five or zero hits a day would matter that much to me.

EVEN THOUGH I ABSOLUTELY LOVE EVERY ONE OF YOU AND COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU ANYMORE!!!

Seriously though. This has mostly been more a way of meditating in public about things related primarily to reading, and other related stuff that interests me….like, for instance, myself and how interesting it must be to everyone to sit and read my narcissistic ramblings about how internally gratifying I have found blogging to be.

Whatever else, it proves again my absolute devotion to lost causes. Among other things literature, high modernism, Christianity, Italian opera, and the now completely anachronistic idea that some things are better than other things. I even got focused on my primary academic interest, Ethnic Literatures of the United States, at just the point that all the powers that be–that is, people who make a lot more money than I do, get published much more easily, and who happen to teach at ivy league schools–decided that categories like ethnicity and race don’t make sense any more.

I’ve even gotten interested in reading at just the point in history that no one really reads anymore.

As I think of it, my whole blog is passe.

Let’s just add blogging to my now long list of lost causes.  It’s in good company.

Death by Blogging

Tiffany over at Yawn at the Apocalypse sent me the following link to a story on the NYT re. the deadly effects of blogging. An excerpt….

Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

Well, now I know what to blame my bulging wasteline on. You, Dear Reader. You. I am so dedicated to my blogging that I am giving up my health for the cause of….well…of something. Of course, before you came along I blamed it on my job, and before that my kids. And before that my mother. If I ever stop blogging I guess I can blame it on the high fructose corn syrup syndicate.

More seriously, I do think that there’s a peculiar way in which writing is degenerating in to the Grub Street model wherein poorly paid hacks scrabble around trying to make a living by the written word. Or should I say the processed word. Whatever. The more things change the more they stay the same. And other cliches.

The personal economy of Kindles: Or, “Say what????”

I admit I’ve been a little hesitant to buy a Kindle, not out of lack of interest or complete antipathy to e-books. Indeed, I’m kind of intrigued if not totally convinced. But the biggest thing stopping me has been the cost. When I realized this I just thought I should do a little mental calculating.

Professors aren’t as well off as people tend to think, but on the whole full-time professors–a diminishing breed–are still solidly middle class. My salary as a full professor with about 8 years of post collegiate education and 16 years of full time teaching experience is in the low 70s. And, to be honest, most professors, especially at small schools or third rank state schools make a lot less than I do. In general I make less than a high school teacher with similar experience and education; who, am I kidding, I make less than my plumber.

Yes, I’m griping, but I’m also realistic that this isn’t a bad life. I remember being thrilled a couple of years ago when I started realizing that I could afford to purchase hard cover books–it mattered not a whit to me that books were on their way out. Indeed, one of the reasons professors can be paid so little relative to their expertise and experience is that they are pleased with so little. Give me a book and four or five weeks clear of having to prepare for classes or other administrative work in the summer, and everything seems like gravy.

Still, I’ve hesitated on the Kindle. 400 bucks is at least an hour or two of my daughter’s prospective college education. Who knows, with interest I may be able to add an hour or two. And it makes me wonder just a bit about the business plan associated with dedicated e-book readers. I would be, I think, a prime candidate for an e-book reader. But on the other hand, I’m an absolutely atypical American when it comes to books purchasing. Most Americans say they buy five books a year and read four. My guess is the other sits on the shelf in order too look kind of impressive even though it’s never read. Reading as many as 12 books a year is considered being a dedicated reader by a lot of folks, and was the benchmark employed by the NEA in some of their recent pronouncements.

So let’s start with the typical American reading, or claiming to read, four books a year. For fun, I went to the Amazon web site. It’s not nearly as much fun a bricks and mortar store, but book lust may still be fed even online. I compared Kindle books prices to standard paperbacks, using the sale price for new books. I leave aside the fact that I could get the books much more cheaply via the Amazon sellers system. Let’s just be fair and try as much as possible to compare apples to apples, a new paperback versus a new e-book.

Roughly speaking I found that the e-books saved about three to four dollars on the e-book. I realize I could add to this if I considered shipping costs, but it’s not inconceivable that a person would buy four books at one time and have no shipping costs at all. Still four bucks. Not bad, you say. True. Who wouldn’t want to save four bucks when they can. This means that the average American book reader would save 16 bucks on the four books they read during the year–this is the best case scenario of assuming that all four of those books were actually purchased new instead of being borrowed from a friend–something hard to do with e-books–or borrowed from the library. Or shoplifted.

This means that it would take the typical American reader approximately…wait…I have to get my calculator. Yes, I wasn’t wrong. It would take the typical American reader about 25–that’s TWENTYFIVE!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

But let’s be fair, there’s also a marginal cost of gas to drive the mile to Barnes and Noble, so let’s say it will take 24–that’s TWENTYFOUR!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

Let’s assume that there are enough readers like me out there to sustain a Kindle investment. I probably buy about 25 books a year–whether I actually read them is another story. Many of them are hardbacks I get via Amazon resellers for a fraction of the original price, but let’s still go with the new paperback price, even though its more than I often pay for hardbacks in good condition. I won’t count the multitude of other books and journals I read or look at from the library, since, after all, I get them for free and I wouldn’t pay 400 dollars for something I now get gratis.

Assuming I buy 25 books a year and I can save 4 bucks a book–questionable, but let’s say it’s possible–I can payoff my Kindle in 4 years.

Now, I still have books on my shelf that I bought 30 years ago, and my parents still have books on their shelves that my grandfather bought and read 100 years ago. So far in my 20 year marriage we have gone through four computers and are on our fifth. That’s a new computer every four to five years. Can someone at Amazon promise me that I will get a brand new Kindle for free when mine wears out, or when I drop it in the lake, or when they upgrade so far that it can no longer read the e-book files which are created six years from now? Somehow I truly doubt it. This means that I’m likely looking at shelling out four or five hundred dollars every five years just to maintain my collection. That means the cost of my e-book purchase keeps increasing throughout the lifetime of the file, simply because I have to keep investing new money in order to maintain my e-books. (To be fair, this increasing cost will continue, but diminish if I maintain more and more books. But it will increase)

I freely admit that paperbacks have some similar marginal maintenance costs. A new book shelf every once in a while will cost me a 100 bucks–or 15 if I’m willing to have cinderblocks and boards–but on the whole, this cost is made up by the fact that I sell old books or donate them to charity, something I can’t do with Kindle books at all.

In other words, I actually think Steve Jobs is probably on to something when he says people don’t read anymore and so there’s no future in e-books. This isn’t quite literally correct, but it seems to me that the long term business model depends upon an extremely small demographic. People like me who read a lot of books, but also people like me who would be willing to shell out what is ultimately more money per book than the cost of a paperback.

And why exactly should I do this again??

Printosaurus

There’s a funny and insightful piece from Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail about being out of step with the times as a thirty something who still reads the newspaper. The occasion for her fretting is a recent piece in the New Yorker on the end of newspapers. An excerpt from McLaren’s ruminations on being an anachronism.

There’s nothing left to do but give up and donate myself to the Newseum of printPrintosaurus journalism, which is about to reopen in multimillion-dollar digs in Washington. They can encase me in glass, under a plaque that reads Female Printosaurus Rex, last known example of the now-extinct species: newspaper columnist.

But maybe the situation is not quite so bad. After all, it seems a bit ironic that all this agonizing about the death of our literary culture has occurred in the pages of newspapers, books and magazines. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in her Harper’s rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, the haute bourgeoisie (also affectionately known, in Web generation parlance, as “white people”) have always revelled smugly in the knowledge that only an anointed minority enjoyed the same privileges they did. In fact, the only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.

Well, I have to say that I take some comfort in the fact that being a paper junkie still links me to other generations. And in observing my kids, it seems to me that things are really not so absolutely definitive as technophobes or digital utopians would have it. To some degree this kind of either/or–either everyone will give up paper or everyone will eventually recognize that digital texts are a waste of good silicon–is a little like what passes for debate on Fox News. Get the most extreme positions imaginable since people seem to like conflicts between clearly defined goods and evils.

Still, my son, 13, gets up every morning and reads the sports page. He even goes out in the morning and gets the paper if his trusty dog…er, I mean his parents…haven’t brought it in yet. He also reads an extraordinary amount of old fashioned books, wedging it in around the extraordinary amount of time he spends skateboarding and watching YouTube videos. My daughter facebooks more than I care for her to, but she also reads quite a bit and enjoys good old fashioned books.

In some ways my kids are unusual, but they aren’t unique. I suspect that books–even good old fashioned print books– are going to end up somewhere on a continuum of entertainment and educational choices. No longer dominant but still important. Same for newspapers. Just as television didn’t bring movies to and end, and movies didn’t bring novels to an end. More a menu of choices rather than stark divisions.

I am interested in McLaren’s take on Ursula Le Guin. It does seem to me that the readers of “serious” fiction, alongside “serious” readers of fiction–two groups that are by no means coextensive–have always been an influential minority. Maybe what’s at stake in a reading crisis, then, is not so much the sense that no one will read books anymore, but that books are losing the aura of necessity. Even if serious reading has always been the province of a minority, book readers have had the pleasure of social prestige. People always felt like they should read more even if they didn’t. Now, however, that perception has passed.

Books as sign

In “Snoopers on Subway, Beware Digital Books,” Susan Dominus of the New York Times points to the ways in which books act as social signifiers and the ways in which Kindles and other e-book readers challenge that particular moder of signification.

Trying to get a read on people who are reading is one of those aimless but satisfying subway pleasures that may eventually go by the wayside, like scanning the liner notes on the way home from Tower Records. The Kindle, an Amazon electronic book reader, may make getting your hands on a book faster, but in the process, it could “make it a lot harder to indulge in the crucial cultural task of judging books — and the people who read them — by their covers,” wrote the columnist Meghan Daum in The Los Angeles Times last fall.

The Kindle may rob New Yorkers of a subway pastime that’s more specific to this city: judging people’s covers by their books. That young guy slouched in his seat, with the hoodie pulled tight over his head — his posture suggests sheer indifference. The book in his hand, “Egyptian Cosmology,” suggests something otherwise (to guess what, exactly, would require a passing familiarity with Egyptian cosmology).

This goes along with my general sense of reading as a signifying act in an of itself, and that books function socially to communicate much more than information. Most of the stuff championing e-books emphasizes their superiority at delivering information. That MAY be true. I’m reading Treasure Island on BookGlutton–admittedly not a dedicated e-book reader but an e-book nonetheless–and I’m not totally convinced. More on that in the future. When I actually manage to finish Treasure Island, that is.

Still, I think the emphasis on books as an information delivery system misses the point that these systems themselves function as cultural artifacts and so themselves enable certain forms of communication just by being, regardless of the information that they contain.

Dominus goes on to say:

Of course, the Kindle won’t stop people from reading in public, but it might make that potentially public act seem oddly private. And we risk stripping reading of the extra work it does, enlightening us about the curiosities of the people with whom we so often seem to share space and nothing else.

I think this is right in a peculiar way. I’ve mentioned on this space before my sense that I am the only person in the coffeeshop who reads books anymore. This lends itself to a particular sense of isolation that has nothing to do with the peculiarity of my activity. Buddhists meditating together are “isolated” in one sense, but the shared silence–or chanting–is a form of cultural communication nonetheless. I feel more distinctly isolated from a person on a laptop than I do from a person reading a book. This may be irrational, but is a fact nonetheless.

Computer use does not serve the purpose of bonding me to the people in my immediate vicinity in the way that reading a book in the library or the bookstore does, or at least seems to do. In a peculiar way, the computer connection homogenizes my cultural spaces. They are all equally points of connection elsewhere, as if the laptop turns everyplace in American into a strip mall–the strip mall that homogeneous space wherein every American can feel they are familiar but alienated.

Speeding and Reading

As luck would have it I stumbled over two good essays in the same day that seemed to speak to my general concerns (paranoia) at the state of the world. Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle Review has an excellent piece on the speed with which American college students live their lives these days, a speed perhaps most emphatically symbolized by the Internet. Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia, and the author of the book Why Read, a book, among thousands of others, I haven’t had time to read yet.

Says Edmundson, beginning with a chance encounter with a student at the beginning of the school year:

We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing though Europe, then back to enjoy his family and home, reconnect with high-school friends, and work on recording a rock CD. What had I done? I had written five drafts of a chapter for a book on the last two years of Sigmund Freud’s life. I had traveled to Crozet, a few miles away, to get pizza. I’d sojourned overnight in Virginia Beach, the day after I woke up distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to begin my chapter. I’d driven to the beach, figured it out (I thought), and then I’d come home. My young friend looked at me with a mixture of awe and compassion. I felt a little like one of those aged men of the earth who populate Wordsworth’s poetry. One of them, the Old Cumberland Beggar, goes so slowly that you never actually see him move, but if you return to the spot where you first encountered him two hours past, lo, he has gone a little way down the road. The footprints are there to prove it.

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One day I tried an experiment in a class I was teaching on English and American Romanticism. We had been studying Thoreau and talking about his reflections (sour) on the uses of technology for communication. (“We are in great haste,” he famously said, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”) I asked the group, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson’s Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau’s “Economy” — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my students aspire to do.

Edmundson’s essay is pretty wide-ranging, going on to link up with insightful discussion of the relevance of Byron, the natural of contemporary sex, and the laptop as an engine for infinitely expanding desire. Most interesting to me is that Edmundson rightly notes that higher education tends to respond to this situation by saying something like “There go my people, I must lead them” then rushing as fast as possible to make our classrooms and our curricula ever more multi-dimensional, multi-media, multi-tasking, multi-cultural, and multitudinous.

In part, the frantic and unrelenting—and perhaps unavoidable—drive for students as consumers leads us to “meet them where they are” rather than challenging and questioning the form of the culture we all necessarily inhabit.

Often times this argument is put in apolitical—and frankly just stupid—terms by casting it as old culture against new culture, or the culture of elders against the culture of youth. Edmundson points out that this generation of college students has had the internet since they were eight years old. My son has never known a time when we didn’t have an internet connection—even though we only managed to get off dialup a few months ago. How, one must ask, is an eight year old determining the contours of his or her culture. This is a culture that has been thrust upon them by mature adults who made the culture in which they must inevitably participate.

But to recognize that inevitability is not the same thing as having to endorse it or at least fail to recognize its limitations. The formidable speed and the wealth of information available at my internet connection is offered by denizens of the net as its greatest and most empowering aspect. It is also, perhaps, its most its most dehumanizing aspect.

Side note: who decided that more power—implied by the notion of empowerment—is always a good thing, always a humanizing thing. Ask Eliot Spitzer—awfully empowered. Not completely sure the quest for more empowerment results in better persons or better cultures.

Though, as I think about it, this isn’t really a sidenote. One traditional hack on traditional modes of reading (and traditional classrooms) are that they are disempowering. Too slow. The author/teacher is too much in control. Against this notion Edmundson suggests that the first task of teaching in such a world is not to speed up our classes, but to slow them down

For a student to be educated, she has to face brilliant antagonists. She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does. Does she come to college as a fundamentalist guardian of crude faith? Then two necessary books for her are Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Once she’s weathered the surface insults, she may find herself in an intellectual version of paradise, where she can defend her beliefs or change them, and where what’s on hand is not a chance conversation, as Socrates liked to say, but a dialogue about how to live. Is the student a scion of high-minded liberals who think that religion is the OxyContin — the redneck heroin — of Redneck Nation? Then on might come William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience or Schopenhauer’s essays on faith. It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.

Not long ago a young man came to my office, plopped down, and looked at me with tired urgency. “Give me 10 minutes on Freud,” he said. “Convince me that he really has something important to tell me.” Despite appearances, this was a good moment. It was a chance to try to persuade him to slow it down. Get one of Freud’s books — Civilization and Its Discontents is usually the best place to start — read it once and again, then let’s talk.

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As to our students, all honor to them: They may have much to teach the five-drafter. By their hunger for more life they convey hope that the world is still in some measure a splendid place, worth seeing and appreciating. Into spontaneity they can liberate us. But life is more than spontaneity and whim. To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.

Yes, I think this is it precisely, and I appreciate Edmundson’s effort to find a balance between the culture of speed and the culture of reflection. But I also think he’s right that our students don’t need from us how to be taught to speed through a course of study; they do that well enough already.

Along these lines, I do think one of the greatest challenges facing English departments—if not the culture as a whole–is the deliberateness and singularly absorbed attention that traditional intensive reading requires.

There is a particular sense in which this kind of attention, this kind of slowing down, is “disempowering” in a particular and commonplace use of that term. I willingly subject myself to the book and surrender my consciousness to the authority of the text, my imagination to the primacy of another imagination. I am in some very real sense possessed and my consciousness of self temporarily dissolved into another world created not by the clicking finger of my desire—though my desire may not be suspended—but created by another will.

This is why romantics from Emerson to Byron to Barthes have hated reading (I say this even though Barthes is sometimes taken as a romantic of the reader. Or because of it. He can only imagine reading as a positive act if reading is reimagined as a form of writing, not a form of self-abnegation.)

My terms here verge on the spiritual, which leads to a second essay I read from Nancy Malone, but I’ve gone on too long already and will try to get to this later. Reading, or at least some kinds of reading, as a form of contemplative practice, one who’s desired goal the self-aggrandizing expansion of desire, but dissolution of the desiring self in any straightforward sense.

What does Einstein know, anyway?

I picked this quotation up from by jan on freedom.

“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”
–Albert Einstein

Ha! Well, Einstein lived in a different age than ours, that’s for sure. I’m more worried that my students’ lives are so frantic and busy–who am I kidding, I KNOW my own life is so frantic and busy–that I hardly have time to read and reflect. I have to schedule the time in my calendar. Reading as task. Indeed, people who manage to find time for reading may be the most industrious among us. Seriously though, I have a big sense that the so-called reading crisis has less to do with television and the internet than it does with our frantic American sense of having to get things done.

Or, given the realities of workplace “efficiency”–a code for fewer people doing more work–it’s not just the frantic “sense” its the frantic “reality” of having to get stuff done. Or else.

At the end of the day, who has the energy for the work reading requires. Much easier to curl up with American Idol.