Wednesday, October 23, 2002

A version of this essay originally appeared as a column in Adbusters. The niece I refer to is now in college, and her sister will follow next year.


In the cybertopia of the future, or so advocates enthuse, the visual image will overcome the word, the speedy networks of the computer-phone/cable-TV net ( complete with VR on your DVD) will make the slow plod of reading books obsolete, and literature will be replaced by interactive multimedia hypertext.

Maybe so, and if so, too bad. It looks like cyberia to me.

So far what pictures seem to do best is sell, so we're inundated with fast blasts of images that associate great emotional states with products (including politicians and ideologies) and reduce complex ideas to suggestive icons. Meanwhile, literacy seems to be declining.

Anyway, words are visual media--as well as aural, physical, mental and spiritual--all interacting. Words are themselves multimedia. They embody mythology and history: there are profound lessons in the history of a word. A graceful sentence is a melody, a dance. Sentences become stories, and scientists and scholars in many fields are rediscovering story as the essential human form of explanation and communication.

So it shouldn't be surprising that in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture and Eros (Sierra Club Books), an excellent collection of 29 interviews conducted by Derrick Jensen with the likes of Thomas Berry, ecologist Paul Shepard, novelist Linda Hogan, historian Frederick Turner and Public Media Center chief Jerry Mander, many speak of the primacy of language and story, as vital to every aspect of our life on earth as water or animals.

In our civilization it is most often true--and will likely be true long after the last deconstructionist decomposes--that
literature depends on the integrity of an author who stubbornly and skillfully communicates a perspective on pieces of time, a vision of human motivation and behavior in an historical, social, sensual, cultural context. It is unlikely that a computer bulletin board could write something as unsparing and lastingly illuminating as The Death of Ivan Ilych. Hypertexts and VR dramas are more likely to ape bad nineteenth century productions of Hamlet, where the Prince jumps up at the end, marries a resurrected Ophelia and lives happily ever after. Or else grabs his phaser and sets off to kill all the warlocks and werewolves in Europe. Yet literature is profoundly interactive--the words on the page become a book in the mind.

In both societal and personal realms, it is clear to me that without literature's particular pleasures, powers and forms of knowledge, we are doomed to stupidity. People who have read Dickens and Sinclair Lewis may be shocked by today's political scene, but they aren't surprised. Literature is learning in depth, and what we learn about most profoundly is each other and ourselves.

In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in An Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Sven Birkerts writes about the literature that escorted him through the self-formation of adolescence (J.D. Salinger,etc.) He fears teenagers today or tomorrow won't have such experiences. I hope he's wrong. Such books were also important to me, and I was early in the first generation to grow up with television as well as movies and pop music. One of my nieces is about to enter her adolescence--she's handy with computer and Nintendo, but she reads books, too.

Maybe she's in a minority now--but then, reading has always been a minority occupation. Some feel that makes it elitist. But as Jonathan Franzen writes, "The paradox of literature's elitism is that it's purely self-selecting. Anyone who can read is free to be part of it."

Hackers and cyber-cowboys may have all the swagger right now, but the real rebels are readers. They rebel against the shrug and grin of commercial conformity and fashionable cynicism by exploring themselves and the world with the help of literature. By slowing and deepening their time in reading, they rebel even against the inhuman speed of this society, which may be empowered by technology but is enforced by greed and panic.

Readers know that to inhabit a present which includes the textures of the past and the cycles of the future is to be more deeply alive than are the captives of buying and braying. "Some say the novel is dead," said a great novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead."