A famous author’s take on our age

The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading, are not within people’s reach anymore.  —Philip Roth

I can’t even complain from any point of superiority.  I too am guilty of spending too much time in the frenetic world of the Internet and electronic communications.  Look what I’m doing right now, instead of reading the book I brought along in my bag.

Mr. Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint and the new Nemesis, believes the demands of modern technology diminish our ability to appreciate beauty and contemplation. (NOTE ADDED LATER: The link to this article is already gone, which is another unnerving aspect of turning our lives over to the Internet: information often comes and goes about as quickly as our fleeting attention spans. Paper, ironically, turns out to be far more permanent.)

Mind you this complaint about our hurry-up lives is hardly new.  Alexis de Tocqueville discussed the phenomena in the 1830s, and another writer from around the same period, Basil Hall, stated that he was astonished how Americans slurped and gulped their food, never taking their time over meals, conversing very little with those around us.  We have always been in a hurry.

But today it seems we’re on steroids.  I’ve talked to people recently who’ve admitted they hate reading long texts on a computer screen.  Yet they’re buying eReaders and eBooks.  I ask about that and am told they’re only uploading “short books,” books you can read in half an hour.  A four-thousand word work does not qualify as a book in my, um, book.  Imagine Dostoevsky in the age of tweets.  Or Philip Roth.

“It’s a shame.  It is also what is happening and there is nothing at all to do about it,” Roth says.  He’s probably right, but something will be lost because of it.  Sure there will be the occasional Franzen, turning out thick, heavy books with sweeping narratives.  But they may well be rare exceptions, like the lone beautiful snow leopard in the world of bulldozers and deforestation.

Is technology the culprit, or only the accomplice?  In the 1950s and early 1960s, with professional-grade film equipment getting lighter and less expensive, a generation of young, brash filmmakers gave birth to the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and the New German Cinema, and such lasting works as Bicycle Thieves, Jules et Jim, and The Marriage of Maria Braun were created.  An even bigger technological revolution has swept across the landscape recently, and the result is largely eight-minute YouTube slasher videos, rip-offs of the garbage young people soak up today from TV, music videos, and torture-porn films.  Why such a shallow pool for inspiration in this media-rich era?  “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading [and viewing] and understanding, are not within people’s reach anymore,” Roth says.

They are, actually.  You just have to control and apportion your attention span.  If there’s still time in life for taking walks, playing sports, watching sports, flying radio-controlled helicopters, eating chips and guacamole and kissing on the couch, there’s still time for reading.  And listening (to music longer and more complicated than verse-chorus-verse-fade out, that is).  And thinking.  In short, appreciating stimulation longer than 140 characters.  Technology reflects us.  We are not slaves to it, contrary to the oft-repeated cliché.

The other night I was in a local cafe featuring live jazz.  It was the first time this venue had ever featured any sort of live music, which made it a bit of a special night.  But after each number, the musicians were met with resounding silence.  It wasn’t because they weren’t good; the were very good.  But as I looked around I noticed that everyone had their noses buried in computers or was playing with their “smartphones” (an oxymoron if there ever was one).  Many of them weren’t even aware that the piped-in music had stopped and they were hearing live performers, performers who ten years ago could likely have gotten a record contract but were now playing into a vacuum. Updating online statuses was much more important to these people than interacting with human beings present in the room.

During intermission, these musicians walked through the cafe to the sound of dead silence, past tables of downcast heads, each one bathed in the glow of his own personal screen, busily posting to his 700 virtual “friends.”  Everyone was oblivious to the wonderfully creative sounds that had just soared across the room.  I tried to imagine what could have been so compelling about those thumbnail photos and short, staccato-y sentences that would cause people to be so rude, so indifferent, so isolated, but I failed.

(UPDATE 11/2011: And it must be noted that this cafe no longer offers live music or movies or any other sort of social events, because people would rather be with their personal devices. They even tried turning off the wifi during shows, but the outcry was overwhelming and the defections massive. For the sake of business, they had to guarantee Internet access all the time.)


7 responses

  1. This post really resonates with me, John. I think this is why I live in the middle of a forest and resist facebook, et al.

    Writers need silence. They need solitude. Yet we are pulled back into the world in the name of commerce. We want to sell our books.

    I think writers must somehow figure out how to live with the “tension of the opposites,” as Carl Jung would say.


    October 19, 2010 at 6:56 am

  2. In the middle of a forest? Sounds nice. Did you see another recent post about that very thing: https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2010/08/04/lets-get-away-from-it-all/


    October 19, 2010 at 9:38 am

  3. Dana Hatch

    I haven’t figured out why reading short stories on your e-reader is “better” than reading a long one. I guess people can’t put things down and come back to them. What I can’t adjust to is the e-reader not displaying the entire page to read from. I hate scrolling and feel it causes me more eye strain trying to keep track of where I am on the page…but you know we’re old fuddy-duddies who can still disconect from outside distractions and focus on the moment, I think not only do you have to “want” to do that, you maybe also have to learn how in this age.


    October 20, 2010 at 11:03 am

  4. Pingback: Readers wanted «

  5. Pingback: Kim English’s Zeitgeist in Carmel-By-The-Sea «

  6. Hi there, I log on to your blogs regularly. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep up the good work!


    July 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

  7. Rodney

    My partner and I stumbled over here by a different page and thought I should check things out.
    I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to going over your
    web page again.


    September 27, 2014 at 10:46 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s