"MahVuhHuhPuh" from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkets. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994, pp. 11-32.

[uncorrected and unproofread OCR. İSven Birkets Readers of this HTML are encouraged to purchase the book from which this excerpt is taken.]

 IT WAS VIRGINIA Woolf who started me thinking about think-
         ing again, set me to weighing the relative merits of the abstract ana-
         lytical mode against the attractions of a more oblique and subjective
         approach. The comparison was ventured for interest alone. Abstract
         analysis has been closed to me for some time-I find I can no longer
         chase the isolated hare. Problems and questions seem to come toward
         me in clusters. They appear inextricably imbedded in circumstance and
         I cannot pry them loose to think about them. Nor can I help factoring in
         my own angle of regard. All is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking
         is now something I partake in, not something I do. It is a complex nar-
         rative proposition, and I am as interested in the variables of the process
         as I am in the outcome. I am an essayist, it seems, and not a philosopher.
            I have had these various distinctions in mind for some time now,
         but only as a fidgety scatter of inklings. The magnet that pulled them
         into a shape was Woolf's classic essay, A Rooni of One's Own. Not the
         what of it, but the how. Reading the prose, I confronted a paradox that
         pulled me upright in my chair. Woolf's ideas are, in fact, few and fairly
         obvious-at least from our historical vantage. Yet the thinking, the pres-
         ence of animate thought on the page, is striking. How do we sort that?
         How can a piece of writing have simple ideas and still infect the reader
         with the excitement of its thinking? The answer, I'd say, is that ideas are
         not the sum and substance of thought; rather, thought is as much about
         the motion across the water as it is about the stepping stones that allow
         it. It is an intricate choreography of movement, transition, and repose, a
         revelation of the musculature of mind. And this, abundantly and exalt-
         ingly, is what I find in Woolf's prose. She supplies the context, shows the
         problem as well as her relation to it. Then, as she narrates her growing
         engagement, she exposes something more thrllling and valuable than
         any mere concept could be. She reveals how incidental experience can
         encounter the receptive sensibility and activate the mainspring of crea-
            I cannot cite enough text here to convince you of my point, but I
         can suggest the flavor of her musing, her particular way of intertwining
         the speculative with the reportorial. Woolf has, she informs us at the
         outset, agreed to present her views on the subject of women and fiction.
         In the early pages of her essay she rehearses her own perplexity. She is a
         writer looking for an idea. What she does is not so very different from
         the classic college freshman maneuver of writing a paper on the prob-
         lem she is having writing a paper. But Woolf is Woolf, and her stylistic
         verve is unexcelled:
         here then I was (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael
         or by any name you please-it is not a matter of any importance) sit-
         ting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October
         weather, lost in thought. That collar I have spoken of, women and
         fiction, the need of coming to some conclusion on a subject that
         raises all sorts of prejudices and passions, bowed my head to the
         ground. To the right and left bushes of some sort, golden and crim-
         son, glowed with color, even it seemed burned with the heat, of fire.
         On the further bank willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their
         hair about their shoulders. The river reflected whatever it chose of
         sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had
         oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely,
         as if he had never been. There one might have sat the clock round
         lost in thought. Thought-to cail it by a prouder name than it de-
         served-let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after
         minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, let-
         ting the water lift it and sink it, until-you know the little tug-the
         sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one's line: and then
         the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid
         on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine
         looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the
         water so that it may grow Fatter and be one day worth cooking and
         Soon enough, Woolf will rise and attempt to cross a patch of lawn, only
         to encounter a zealous beadle, who will not only shoo her back toward
         authorized turf, but will initiate her reverie on male power and privi-
         lege. This is her triumph: the trust in serendipity which proves, when
         unmasked, to be an absolute faith in the transformative powers of the
         creative intellect. A Room of One's Own, whatever it says about women,
         men, writing, and society, is also a perfect demonstration of what might
         be called " magpie aesthetics." Woolf is the bricoleuse, cobbling with
         whatever is to hand; she is the flaneuse, redeeming the slight and inci-
         dental by creating the context of its true significance. She models an-
         other path for mind and sensibility, suggests procedures that we might
         consider implementing for ourselves now that the philosophers, the old
         lovers of truth, have followed the narrowing track of abstraction to the
         craggy places up above the timberline.
            By now the astute reader will have picked up on my game-that I
         am interested not only in celebrating Woolf's cunningly sidelong ap-
         proach, but that I am trying, in my own ungainly way, to imitate it.
         Woolf had her "collar" (women and fiction) thrust upon her; I have
         wriggled into mine-let's call it reading and meaning--of my own voli-
         tion. I know that I face an impossible task. Who can hope to say any-
         thing conclusive on so vast a subject? But I opted for vastness precisely
         because it would allow me to explore this unfamiliar essayistic method.
         A method predicated not upon conclusiveness but upon exploratory di-
         gressiveness; a method which proposes that thinking is not simply utili-
         tarian, but can also be a kind of narrative travel that allows for picnics
         along the way.
            I invoke Woolf as the instigating presence. Her example sets the key
         signature for an inquiry into the place of reading and sensibility in what
         is becoming an electronic culture. Within the scheme I have in mind,
         Woolf stands very much at one limit. Indeed, her work is an emblem for
         some of the very things that are under threat in our age: differentiated
         subjectivity, reverie, verbal articulation, mental passion - . .
            Before I go on, I must make a paradoxical admission: I was spurred
         13         to read A Room of One's Own by watching a televised adaptation of the
         book. On the program, Eileen Atkins, playing the part of Woolf, solilo-
         quized for a hill hour. Her address, supposedly directed at an audience
         of women at Girton College, was composed of extracted passages from
         the text. Armed with minimal props and a rather extraordinary reper-
         toire of gestures, Atkins held forth. And I, wedged into my corner of the
         couch, was mesmerized. By the acting, sure, but more by the sheer
         power and beauty of the spoken word. Here, without seeming archaic
         or excessively theatrical, was a language such as one never hearscer-
         tainly not on TV. I was riveted. And as soon as the show was over I went
         to find the book.
            A Room of One's Own, I'm happy to say, stood up to its television
         rendition-indeed, galloped right past it. And it has spent many nights
         since on my bedside table. But the paradox remains: Just as Woolfs
         charged prose shows us what is possible with language, so it also forces
         us to face the utter impoverishment of our own discourse. And as we
         seek to explain how it is that flatness and dullness carry the day, we have
         to lay at least part of the blame at the feet of our omnipotent media sys-
         tems. And yet, and yet... here I found myself reintroduced to the
         power of Woolf by the culprit technology itself.
            This is the sort of thing I tend to think about. I ponder the para-
         dox-stare at it as if it were an object on the desk in front of me. I stare
         and wait for ideas and intuitions to gather, but I do not unpack my in-
         struments of reason. F~or, as I see it, this little triad-of me, TV, and
         book-potentially touches every aspect. of our contemporary lives and
         our experience of meaning. To think about the matter analytically
         would be to break the filaments of the web.
            I will therefore set down what amount to a few anecdotal provoca-
         tions and go wandering about in their midst. All of my points of focus
         have, as you will see, some connection to my immediate daily experi-
         ence; they are embedded in the context of my life. But they also have a
         discernible link. For I have been going around for quite some time with
         a single question-a single imprecisely general question-in my mind.
         The interrogation mark has been turned upside down and, to follow
         Woolf, lowered into the waters of my ordinary days. It is always there,
         and, from time to time, for whatever reason, it captures the attention of


         some swrmrm.g thing. I feel a tug: The paper is produced, the note gets
         scribbled, and the hook is thrown back out.
            The question, again, is, "What is the place of reading, and of the
         reading sensibility, in our culture as it has become?" And, like most of
         the questions I ponder seriously, this one has been around long enough
         to have become a conspicuous topographical feature of my mental land-
         scape. In my lifetime I have witnessed and participated in what amounts
         to a massive shift, a wholesale transformation of what I think of as the
         age-old ways of being. The primary human relations-to space, time,
         nature, and to other people-have been subjected to a warping pressure
         that is something new under the sun. Those who argue that the very na-
         ture of history is change-that change is constant-are missing the
         point Our era has seen an escalation of the rate of change so drastic that
         all possibilities of evolutionary accommodation have been short-
         circuited. The advent of the computer and the astonishing sophistica-
         tion achieved by our electronic communications media have together
         turned a range of isolated changes into something systemic. The way
         that people experience the world has altered more in the last fifty years
         than in the many centuries preceding ours. The eruptions in the early
         part of our century-the time ofworldwars and emergent modernity-
         were premonitions of a sort. Since World War II we have stepped, col-
         lectively, out of an ancient and familiar solitude and into an enormous
         web of imponderable linkages. We have created the technology that not
         only enables us to change our basic nature, but that is making such
         change all but inevitable. This is why I take reading-reading construed
         broadly-as my subject Reading, for me, is one activity that inscribes
         the limit of the old conception of the individual and his relation to the
         world. It is precisely where reading leaves off, where it is supplanted by
         other modes of processing and transmitting experience, that the new
         dispensation can be said to begin.
            None of this, I'm afraid, will seem very obvious to the citizen of the
         late twentieth century. If it did, there would be more outcry, more de-
         bate. The changes are keyed to generational transitions in computa-
         tional power; they come in ghostly increments, but their effect is to alter
         our lives on every front Public awareness of this expresses itself
         obliquely, often unconsciously, as nostalgia-a phenomenon which the


         media brokers are all too aware of. They hurry to supply us with the
         necessary balm: media productions and fashions that harken back reas-
         suringly to eras that we perceive as less threatening, less cataclysmic. But
         this is another subject. We are, on a conscious level, blinkered to
         change. We adapt to the local disturbances. We train ourselves to com-
         puter literacy, find ways to speed up our performance, accept higher
         levels of stress as a kind of necessary tax burden, but by and large we ig-
         nore the massive transformations taking place in the background. This
         is entirely understandable. The present hastens us forward, at every mo-
         ment sponging up what preceded it. Only when we wrench ourselves
         free and perform the ceremony of memory do we grasp the extent of the
         change. In our lives, in the world. Then indeed we may ask ourselves
         where we are headed and what is the meaning of this great metamor-
         phosis of the familiar.
            I was recently reading a novel by Graham Swift entitled Ever After.
         At one point, the narrator, an adult looking back upon his youth, recalls
         how he used to race on his bike to a private lookout post from which he
         could watch the great steam engines go hurtling past. Calling upon the
         privileged hindsight of his narrator, Swift writes:

         Between Aldermaston wharf and Midgham, where the Reading-to-
         Newbury line clipped the side of the hill and entered a short cut-
         ting-a favorite spot for these enthralled vigils, so limply known as
         "train-spotting" --- I could look out on a vista which might have
         formed the model for one of those contrived scenes in a children's
         encydopedia, depicting the theme of " Old and New." River, canal
         and railway line were all in view. At a single moment it would have
         been perfectly possible to see, in the background, the old watermill
         on the Kennet, with a horse working the field before it; in the middle
         distance, a barge on the canal; and in the foreground, a train radng
         for the cutting; while no less than three road bridges provided a fair
         opportunity for some gleaming motor car (complete with an inanely
         grinning couple in the front seats) to be brought simultaneously into
         the picture.
            I must have seen it once-many times-that living palimpsest.
         And no doubt I should have been struck by some prescient, elegiac
         pang at the sight of these great expresses steaming only to their own
         oblivion, and taking with them a whole lost age.


         I found the passage a compelling analogy of our own situation, only in-
         stead of modes of transport in the palimpsest I would place book, video
         monitor, and any of the various interactive hypertext technologies now
         popping up in the marketplace. Looking up from Swift's page, 1 won-
         dered what it would be like to look back upon our own cultural mo-
         ment from a vantage of, say, thirty years. Are we not in a similar
         transitional phase, except that what is roaring by, destined for immi-
         nent historical oblivion, is the whole familiar tradition of the book? All
         around us, already in place, are the technologies that will render it anti-

            In the fall of 1992 I taught a course called "The American Short
         Story" to undergraduates at a local college. I assembled a set of readings
         that I thought would appeal to the tastes of the average undergraduate
         and felt relatively confident. We would begin with Washington Irving,
         then move on quickly to Hawthorne, Poe, James, and Jewett, before
         connectmg with the progressively more accessible works of our century.
         I had expected that my students would enjoy "The Legend of Sleepy
         Hollow," be amused by its caricatures and ghost-story element. Noth-
         ing of the kind. Without exception they found the story over-long, ver-
         bose, a chore. I wrote their reactions off to the fact that it was the first
         assignment and that most students would not have hit their reading
         stride yet. When we got to Hawthorne and Poe I had the illusion that
         things were going a bit better.
            But then came Henry James's "Brooksmith" and I was completely
         derailed. I began the dass, as I always do, by soliciting casual responses
         of the "I liked it" and "I hated it" sort. My students could barely muster
         the energy for a thumbs-up or -down. It was as though some pneumatic
         pump had sucked out the last dregs of their spirits. "Bad day, huh?" I
         ventured. Persistent questioning revealed that it was the reading that
         had undone them. But why? What was the problem? I had to get to the
         bottom of their stupefaction before this relatively-i thought-available
            I asked: Was it a difficulty with the language, the style of writing?
         Nods all around. Well, let's be more specific. Was it vocabulary, sen-
         tence length, syntax? "Yeah, sort of," said one student, "but it was more


         just the whole thing." Hmmmmm. Well then, I said, we should con-
         sider this. I questioned whether they understood the basic plot. Sure,
         they said. A butler's master dies and the butler. can't find another place
         as good. He loses one job after another-usually because he quits-then
         falls into despair and disappears, probably to end it all. "You don't find
         this moving?" One or two students conceded the pathos of the situa-
         tion, but then the complaints resurfaced, with the original complainer
         chiming in again that it was not so much the story as "the whole thing."
            The whole thing. what whole thing? My tone must have reflected
         my agitation, my impatience with thefr imprecision. But then, after
         endless going around, it stood revealed: These students were entirely
         defeated. by James's prose-the medium of it-as well as by the as-
         sumptions that underlie it. It was not the vocabulary, for they could
         make out most of the words; and not altogether the syntax, although
         here they adntitted to discomfort, occasional abandoned sentences.
         What they really 'could not abide was what the vocabulary, the syntax,
         the ironic indirection, and so forth, were communicating. They didn't
         get it, and their not getting it angered them, and they expressed their
         anger by drawing around themselves a cowl of ill-tempered apathy. Stu-
         dents whom I knew to be quick and resourceful in other situations sud-
         denly retreated into glum illiteracy. "I dunno," said the spokesman, "the
         whole thing just bugged me-I couldn't get into it."
            Disastrous though the class had been, I drove home in an excited
         mood. What had happened, I started to realize, was that I had encoun-
         tered a conceptual ledge, one that may mark a break in historical conti-
         nuity. This was more than just a bad class-it was a corroboration of
         something I had been on the verge ofgrasping for years. You could have
         drawn a lightbulb over my head and turned it on.
            What is this ledge, and what does it have to do with the topic I've
         embarked upon? To answer the second question: Everything. As I wrote
         before: the world we have known, the world of our myths and ref-
         erences and shared assumptions, is being changed by a powerful, if
         often intangible, set of forces. We are living in the midst of a momen-
         tous paradigm shift. My classroom experience, which in fact represents
         hundreds of classroom experiences, can be approached diagnostically.
            This is not a simple case of students versus Henry James. We are not


         concerned with an isolated dash of sensibilities, his and theirs. Rather,
         we are standing in one spot along a ledge-or, better, a fault line-divid-
         ing one order from another. In place of James we could as easily put
         Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison It would be the same.
         The point is that the collective experience of these students, mpst of
         whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cul-
         tural heritage utterly alien. That is the breaking point: it describes where
         their understandings and aptitudes give out. What is at issue is not dic-
         tion, not syntax, but everything that diction and syntax serve. Which is
         to say, an entire system of beliefs, values, and cultural aspirations.
            In Henry James are distilled many of the elements I would discuss.
         He is inward and subtle, a master of ironies and indirections; his work
         manifests a care for the range of moral distinctions. And one cannot
         "get" him without paying heed to the least twist and turn of the lan-
         guage. James's world, and the dramas that take place in that world, are
         predicated on the idea of individuals in an organic relation to their so-
         ciety. In his universe, each one of those individuals are still surrounded
         by an aura of importance; their actions and decisions are felt to count
         for something.
            I know that the society of James's day was also repressive to many,
         and was, further, invested in certain now-discredited assumptions of
         empire. I am not arguing for its return, certainly not in that form. But
         this was not the point, at least not in the discussions I then pursued with
         my students. For we did, after our disastrous James session, begin to
         question not only our various readings, but also the reading act itself
         and their relation to it. And what emerged was this: that they were not,
         with a few exceptions, readers-never had been; that they had always
         occupied themselves with music, TV, a'nd videos; that they had diffi-
         culty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; that
         they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with al-
         lusions, with vocabulary that seemed "pretentious"; that they were es-
         pecially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with
         any deviations from straight plot; and that they were put off by ironic
         tone because it flaunted Superiority and made them feel that they were
         missing something. The list is partial.
            All of this confirmed my longstanding suspicion that, having grown


         up in an electronic culture, my students would naturally exhibit certain
         aptitudes and lack others. But the implications, as I began to realize,
         were rather staggering, especially if one thinks of this not as a temporary
         generational disability, but rather as a permanent turn. If this were true
         of my twenty-five undergraduates, I reasoned, many of them from rela-
         tively advantaged backgrounds, then it was probably true for most of
         their generation. And not only theirs, but for the generations on either
         side of them as well. What this meant was not, narrowly, that a large sec-
         tor of our population would not be able to enjoy certain works of litera-
         ture, but that a much more serious situation was developing. For, in
         fact, our entire collective subjective history-the soul of our societal
         body-is encoded in print. Is encoded, and has for countless genera-
         tions been passed along by way of the word, mainly thrnugh books. I'm
         not talking about facts and information here, but about the somewhat
         more elusive soft data, the expressions that tell us who we are and who
         we have been, that are the record of individuals living in different
         epochs-that are, in effect, the cumulative speculations of the species. If
         a person turns from print-finding it too slow, too hard, irrelevant to
         the excitements of the present-then what happens to that person's
         sense of culture and continuity?
            These are issues too large for mere analysis; they are over-deter-
         mined. There is no way to fish out one strand and think it through. Yet
         think we must, even if we have to be clumsy and obvious at times. We
         are living in a society and culture that is in dissolution. Pack this para-
         graph with your own headlines about crime, eroded values, educational
         dedine, what have you. There are many causes, many explanations. But
         behind them all, vague and menacing, is this recognition: that the
         understandings and assumptions that were formerly operative m soci-
         ety no longer feel valid. Things have shifted; they keep shifting. We all
         feel a desire for connection, for meaning, but we don't seem to know
         what to connect with what, and we are utterly at sea about our place as
         individuals in the world at large. The maps no longer describe the ter-
         rain we inhabit. There is no dear path to the future. We trust that the
         species will blunder on, but we don't know where to. We feel impris-
         oned in a momentum that is not of our own making.
            I am not about to suggest that all of this comes of not reading Henry

         James. But I will say that ofail this comes not being able to read James or
         any other emissary from that recent but rapidly vanishing world. Our
         historically sudden transition into an electronic culture has thrust us
         into a place of unknowing. We have been stripped not only of familiar
         habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological ref-
         erence. Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger fig-
         ures of wisdom. Not a brave new worijd at all, but a fearful one.
           The notion of historical change compels and vexes me. I am not so
         much interested in this war or that treaty or mvention, although obvi-
         ously these are critical factors. What I brood about has more to do with
         the phenomenology of everyday life. How it is that the world greets the
         senses differently-is experienced differently-from epoch to epoch.
         We know about certain ways in which the world has changed since, say,
         1890, but dowe know howthefeelingoflife has changed? We can isolate
         the more objective sorts of phenomena, cite improvements in trans-
         portation, industrial innovations, and so on, but we have no reliable ac-
         cess to the subjective realrn. When older people sigh and say that "life
         was different back then," we may instinctively agree, but how can we
         grasp exactly what that difference means?
           On the other hand, we all inhabit multiple time zones. We have the
         world of our daily present, which usually daims most of our attention,
         but we are also wrapped in shadowybands of the past First, we have the
         layers of our own history. The older we get, the more substantial grows
         the shadow-and the greater the gap between the world as we kn9w it
         now and the world aS it used to be. At the outer perimeter, that indis
         tinct mass of memories shades together with another mass. These are
         the memories we grew up among. They belong to our parents and,
         grandparents. Our picture of the world, how it is and how it use4 to be,
         is necessarily tinged with wbat we absorbed from innumerable ref-
         erences and anecdotes, from the then that preceded us.
           Thus, as a man in my early forties, I already carry a substantial tem-
         pocal baggage. I am a dtizen of the now, reading the daily paper sliding
         my embossed card into the money machine at the bank, and renting a
         video for the evening's relaxation. But I am also other selves: a late
         starter, a casualty of the culture wars of the 1960s, an alienated adoles-
         cent sopping up pop culture and dreaming of escape, an American' kid




           growing up in the 1950s, playing touch football and watching "I Love
           Lucy." An American kid? I should say a kid trying very hard to be an
           American kid. For although I was bom here, both my parents were from
           the old country, latria, and my childhood was both subtly and overtly
           permeated by their experience-their stories of growing up in Itiga, of
           war and dispersal. And how it was for them naturally became a part of
           how it was for me.
             Nor did it end there. I also grew up with grandparents. And from
           them I imbibed still another sense of time. Visiting their home, I circu-
           lated among their artifacts, heard their reminiscences. Through them I
           made contact, however indirectly, with a world utteriy unlike anything I
           know now: a world at once more solid and grim, a world that held gaps
           and spaces and distances. Mthough my grandparents both grew up in
           towns, they had roots in rural places. Their stories were filled with farm
           and country lore. Indeed, until quite late in their lives they had no car,
           no TV. Even the telephone had something newfangled about it. Their
           anecdotes unfolded in a different order, at a different pace. They had
           one foot in the modem era and one foot back in the real past By that I
           mean the past tj'at had seen generation upon generation living more or
           less in the same wayabsorbing incremental change, yes, but otherwise
           bound to a set of fundamental rhythms.
             There is a difference between this sort of reflection and that more-
           piercing awareness we call nostalgia. Nostalgia is immediate and tends
           to be more localized. As often as not, it is triggered by. an experiential
           short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an
           image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past A song on the radio, an
           old photograph discovered in the pages of a boolt The past catches us
         # by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person,
           that place, but more for the selves that we were then.
             Like everyone else, I am subject to these intrusions. I distinguish
           them from the more sustained sorts of excavations that I have been
           undertaking receatly. I am not in search of private sensation, but of a
           kind of understanding. I want to know what life may have been like dur-
           ing a certain epoch, what daily livifig may have felt like, so that I can
           make a comparison with the present. Why? I suppose because I believe


         that there is a secret to be found, a due that will help me to solve the
         mystery of the present
            It happened that while I was in this season of thinking about time
         and the life of the past I rented a video of a film called Fools ofFonune,
         based on a novel by William Trevon It was a desperate grab, really, a bid
         to cancel the residue of an enervating day. But as soon as I popped the
         cassette into the player I felt my obsessions again coalesce. The opening
         moments of the film reproduced what were meant to be bits of old 8-
         mm footage. Jerky, erratic bleached and pocked by time. A child tod-
         dling forward across a grand lawn, a manor house in the background. A
         wornan in a garden chair with period dothing and hairstyle. All cine-
         matic artifice, of course, but I was entirely susceptible to it
            The film depicted Ireland in the early years of our century, d&ting
         the rime of the civil wan I was most struck by what seemed its real sen-
         sitivity to the conditions of the provincial life it recorded. Lingering
         shots of silent rooms, of people working in uninterrupted solitude, of
         people walking and walking, carts slowly rolling. I may be tailoring my
         memory of the film to fit my need, but never mind. And never mind the
         fact that I was sitting in my 1990s electronic cottage, watching actors in
         a commercial production on my videocassette player. For a few mo-
         ments I succumbed to the intended illusion: I was looking through a
         window at the actual past, at things as they had once been. I was over-
         wheimed, really, by the realization 6f change. In a matter of decades
         from the rime of my grandparents to the rime of the present-we have,
         all of us, passed through the looking glass.
            At one point in the film the main character walks along the side of a
         brick building, toward the town square. An unremarkable scene, transi-
         tional filler. Yet this was, for some reason, the moment that awakened
         me. I thought: If I could just imagine myself completely into this scene,
         see my surroundings as if through the eyes of this person, then I would
         know something. I tried to perform the exercise in different ways. First,
         by taking a blind leap backward, restricting myself to just those things
         he might have encountered, imagining for myself the dung and coal-
         smoke scent of the spring air, the feel of rounded cobblestones under
         my shoes, a surrounding silence broken by the sounds of hammers,


         cartwheels, and hooves. A nearly impossible maneuver, b9t attempting
         it I realired how much has to be forcibly expunged from awareness.
            I have also tried working myself back gradwilly from present to
         past, peeling off the layers one by one: taking away televisions and tele-
         phones (all things "tele-"), airplanes, cars, plastics, synthetic fibers, effi-
         cient sanitation, asphalt, wristwatches, and ballpoint peas, and on and
         on. The effect is quite extraordinary; I feel a progressive widening of
         space and increase of silence, as well as a growing specific gravity in oh-
         jects. As I move more deeply into the past, I feel the encroachment of
         place; the specifics of locale get more and more prominent as the dis-
         tance to the horizon increases. So many things need to be reconstituted:
         the presence of neighbors; the kinds ofimowledge that come from living
         a whole life within a narrow compass; the aura of uaatta:inable distance
         that attaches to the names of faraway placesladia, Ceylon, Africa...
         And what was it like to live so close to death? And what about every-
         thing else: the feel of woven cloth, the different taste of food, drink, pipe
         tobacco? From the center of the life I imagine, a life not even a century
         old, I find it impossible to conceive ofthe life I am living now. The look-
         ing glass works both ways.
            The chain of association is the lifeline, or fate, of thought One thing
         leads to another; ideas gather out of impressions and begin to guide the
         steps in mysterious ways. After my experience of watching Fools ofFor-
         tune, I decided that I should find a novel from the perio& To read it
         with an eye for those very "background" features - to derive some fur-
         ther sense of the feel of life in a pre-electroulc age. I picked up Thomas
         Hard/s Jude the Obscure.
            Read this way, with as much attention paid to the conditions of life
         as to the lives themselves, Jude becomes another window opening upon
         how it was. From the very first senterices, the spell of the past is woven:

         The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed
         sorry. The miller at Cresscombe lent him the small white tilted cart
         and horse to carry his goods to the city of his desunation, about
         twenty miles off, such a vehicle pw&irig of quite sufficient size for the
         departing teacher's effects.


         To enter the work at all we need to put our present-day sense of things
         in suspension; we have to, in effect, reposition the horiron and recon-
         ceive all of our assumptions about the relations between things. Hardy's
         twenty miles are not ours. The pedagogue does not pile his belongings
         into the back of a Jeep Cherokee. His "effects" fit easily into a small
         horse-drawn cart he has borrowed. The city, called Christminster in the
         novel, is within waling distance of the village of Marygreen, but the
         distance means something. Soon enough, Hardy's Jude will stand on a
         nearby hffl straining to catch a glimpse of that city's spires. He will
         dream of one day going there: to Jude it is the far edge of the world. Not
         because he could not with some pluck walk there to see it himself, but
         because he knows, as does everyone, that places are self-contained.
         Christruinster is not just a point on a grid, it is a small worid win' its
         own laws, its own vortex of energies; it is other. And reading Jude we
         begln to grasp dlstinctions of this sort
            It would take too loiig to address as they deserve the myriad ways
         in which Jude's world is different from ours. But as we read we are
         gradually engulfed by a half-familiar set of sensations. Because the
         characters walk, we walk; because they linger by roadsides or in market
         squares, we do too. And by subtle stages we are overwhelmed. Over-
         whelmed by the sire of the world. If Christminster is a trip, then Lon-
         don, hardly even mentioned, is a joumey. And America, or any other
         country, is a voyage. The globe expands, and at the same time our sense
         of silence deepens. No background hum, no ambient noise. When
         people communicate, it is face to face. Or else by letter. There are no
         telephones or cars to hurriedly bridge the spatial gaps. We hear voices,
         and we hear footsteps die away in the distance. Days pass at a pace we
         can hardly imagine. A letter arrives and it is an event The sound of
         paper unfolding, of wind in the trees outside the door. And then the
         things, their thingness. Jude's little hoard of Greek and Latin grammars,
         the smudgy books he had scrimped to buy-books he carried with him
         until his dying day. His stoneworking tools: well cared for, much
         prized I suddenly think of lines from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Crusoe
         m England." The castaway has returned "home" after his long years on
         the island:


         Now I live here, another island,
         that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
         My blood was full of them; my brain
         bred islands. But that archipelago
         has petered out. I'm old.
         I'm bored, too, drinking my real tea,
         surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
         The knife there on the shelf-
         it reeked of meaning, like a cruc\£i
         It lived. How many years did I
         beg it, implore it, not to break?
         I knew each uick and scratch by heart,
         the bluish blade, the broken tip,
         the lines of wood-grain on the handle . .
         Now it won't look at me at all.
         The living soui has dribbled away.
         My eyes rest on it and passort

            This is it, no? The densities of meaning once conferred, siuce
         leached out. Our passage into bright contemporaneity has carried a
         price: The more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access,
         the more we sacrifice in the way of depth. Read Jude the Obscure and
         you' 'will be struck, I think, by the material particularity of Hard/s
         world You will feel the heft of things, the solidity. You will also feel the
         stasis, the near-intolerable boredom of boundedness.
         ~':~  Advantages and disadvantages - how could it be otherwise? Ispeak
         as iflongingly of those times, but would I trade the speed and access and
         comfort of my life for the rudeness and singularity cif that? I doubt it.
         But then, I have the benefit of hindsight. I am in the position of the
         adult who is asked if he would return once and for all to his childhood.
         The anrwer is yes and no.
            And the purpose of this rambling excursion? Am I simply lament-

         ing the loss of something I could not bear to recover-a gone worid?
         No. What I intended, in the obscure way one intends these things when
         writing, was to wander away from the specter of my American short
         °tory class, wander until the reader's memory traces should have all but
         faded, and then to bring the image of those students forward again. To


         try one more time to make something of my intuition: that their unease
         befbrq Henry James's "Brooksmith" has a larger significance, that it is
         not just another 'instance of young minds being put off by James's a's-
         sumptions of civilization, but rather that that unease illuminates some-
         thing central about our cultural condltion and its prospects.
            Obviously it is too simplistic to blame the students' discomfiture,
         not just with James but with demanding texts in general, upon any one
         thing, such as television, video games, inadequate secondary schools, or
         what have you. To do so would be to miss the larger point: that the
         situation is total and arises from systemic changes affecting the culture
         at every level. And while the situation thus defies ready analysis, it nev-
         ertheless has the greatest consequences for all of us and must somehow
         be addressed. We are at a watershed point. One way of processing Wfor-
         mation is yielding to another. Bound up with each is a huge array of ap-
         titudes, essurnptions, and understandings about the world.
            We can think of the matter in terms ofgains and losses. The gains of
         electroulc postruodemity could be said to indude, for individuals, (a)
         an increased awareness of the "big picture," a global perspective that ad-
         mits the e:uraordinary complexity of, interrelations; (b) an expanded
         neural capacity, an ability to accommodnte a broad range of stimuli
         sunultaneously', (c) a relativistic comprehension of situations that pro-
         motes the erosion of old biases and often expresses itself as tolerance;
         and (d) a matter-o&fact and unencumbered sort of readiness, a willing-
         ness to try new situations and arrangements.
            In the loss column, meanwldie,, a:re (a) a fragmented sense of time
         and a loss of the so-called duration experience, that depth phenomenon
         we associate with reverie; (b) a redjiced attention span and a general im-
         patience with sustained inquiry; (c) a thattered faith in institutions and
         in the explanatory narratives that formerly gaye shape to subjective ex-
         perience; (d) a divorce from the past, from, a vital sense of history as a
         cumulative or organic process; (e) an estrangement from geographic
         place and, community; and (f) an absence of any strong vision of a per-
         sonal or collective future.
            These are, granted, enormous generalizations. But they record what
         a great many of my students have said of them, selves and their own Cx-
         periences. For, apart from talking about their responses to texts, we


         talked a good deal about their lives. They were as interested as I was in
         discussing how their sense of the world had bearing on their reading.
         What surprised me was the degree to which their own view of them-
         selves was critical.
            But these are all abstract considerations while the pressure that
         compels me to write this is very much rooted in daily experience and in
         my own fears. I worry not only that the world will become increasingly
         alien and inhospitable to me, but also that I will be gradually coerced
         into living against my natumi grain, forced to adapt to a pace and a level
         of technological complexity that does not suit me, and driven to interact
         with others in certain prescribed ways. I tried to live without a tele-
         phone answering machine for a' rime and was made to feel like a pariah.
         I type these words on an IBM Selectric and feel positively antediluvian
         My editors let me know that my quaint Luddite habits are gumming up
         the works, slowing things' down for them.
            These are trivial examples, but they are indicative. On one level or
         another we make our adjustments; we shrug and bow to progress. But
         the fact is that with each capitulation we are drawn more deeply into the
         web. True, none of the isolated changes make that much difference-
         but the increasing enmeshment does. The more deeply we are impli-
         cated, the more wt forfeit in the way of personal initiative and agency;
         the more we become part of a species-organism. Every acquiescence to
         the circuitry is marked by a shrinkage of the sphere of autonomous sel&
            As a writer I naturally feel uneasy. These large-scale changes bode ill
         for authorship, at least of the kind I would pursue. There are, we know
         this, fewer and fewer reade'rs for serious works. Publishers are increas-
         ingly reluctant to underwrite the publication of a book that will sell only
         a few thousand copies. But very few works ofany aitistic importance sell
         more than that. And those few :thousand readers - a 'great many of
         them, it turns out, are middle-aged or older. The younger generations
         have not caught the habit.
            I rue all of this, but I can take it. Reading and writing will last long
         enough to cover my stay here below. Indeed, I have resolved to make the
         crisis - I see it as such-my subject But I also look toward the future as
         a father. I have a five-year-old daughter and cannot but think of the


         ways in which her life will be different than mine And when, in my
         darker moods, I contemplate the forces that will determine so much of
         her experience, her subjective outlook, I feel a sharp sense of regret.
         Then it seems to me that unless her mother and I are able to equip her
         with an extraordinary doggedness and with a strong appetite for what is
         unique and vital, she will be swept up in the tide of the homogeneous. If
         she goes to a school where reading is not prized, if she follows the non-
         reading horde of her peers, where will she find the incentive, the desire
         to read on her own? And if she does not read on her own, where will she
         frnd the nutrients she needs in order to evolve an independent identity?
            We do what we can, and we try to do it in a noncoercive way. We
         promote the pleasures of the book by example, by forever reading. And
         we try to make the encounter enjoyable. We buy books, borrow them
         from the library, and read to her regularly. But we also try to avoid any
         association of the medicinal-that books are good for her and that
         reading is a duty. So far it seems to be working. She is eager; she recog-
         nines that books are a place away from routine, a place associated with
         dreams and fantasies.
            On the one side, then, is the reading encounter, the private re-
         source. On the other is the culture at large, and the highly seductive glit-
         ter of mass-produced entertainment We are not so foolish as to
         prohibit it, but I sometimes wonder if we' are being as wise as we might
         be in not curtailing it more. We have entered the world of Disney, and I
         am seized by the fear that there might be no way out. This past season it
         was Beauty and the Beast I don't just mean that we saw the movie in the
         theater once or twice, which would have been the beginning and end of
         it when I was a child; we saw the movie three, four, five times.; We
         bought the book, illustrated with stills from the movie, and we read
         that, and looked through it, half a hundred times. The cassette of, the
         songs was purchased and played until the emulsion on the tape, wore
         thin. Then, for Christmas, the video. Another thirty viewings, maybe
         more. And then the ice show with the Beauty and the Beast theme, and
         the accessories (flashlight, cup) that can perch on the shelf alongside the
         plastic Beauty and the Beast toys given out at Burger King.     :'
            Today as never before in human history the child lives in an enter-
         tainment environment, among myriad spinoffs and products and corn-


         mercial references, all of which reinforce the power, or should I say
         tyranny, of the movie. I relent in the face of it. I was raised quite strictly
         so I am, in my turn, lenient. I don't have the heart to deny my daughter
         what she covets and what all her friends have. I see the pleasure she takes
         in occupying this vivid universe and I want her to have it. I tell myself
         that it will feed her imagination and that she will soon enough grow into
         more intricate and demanding fantasies.
            And then I despair. I conjure up a whole generation of children en-
         slaved by a single carefully scripted, lushly animated narrative. Not even
         a narrative created by a single artist, but a team product. A studio job.
         And I wonder what tale or rhyme or private fantasy will be able to corn-
         peters with the high-powered rendition from Hollywood's top talents. Is
         her imagination being awakened, or stultified, locked forever on a kind
         of assembly-line track? What is the effect of these dozens and dozens of
         repetitions? What are the overt and subliminal messages she is taking
         in? What is she learning about men, women, love, honor, and all the
         rest? Is she incorporating into her deepest subjective structure a set of
         glib cliches? Will she and her millions of peers, that huge constituency
         that comprises our future and that is underwriting the global growth of
         the Disney empire-will all of these kids march forward into adulthood
         as Disney automatons, with cookie-cut responses to the world they en-
            I have these fears, and yet I remain permissive. I suppose that is in
         part because I believe that mass culture is so pervasive these dnys that it is
         folly to try to hide from it; that if I do curtail it I will invest itwith all that
         much more appeal. But my permissiveness also depends upon a kind of
         wager, or a profession of faith. I let the rivers ofpopular culture (the less-
         polluted ones) flow freely around my daughter. But at the same time I do
         everything I can to introduce her to books and stories. I trust that in the
         free market of the child's imagination these more tradltional goods are
         interesting and unique enough to hold their own. No less important, I
         stake myself on the basic vitality and independence of that child's soul. I
         cannot allow that we are so limited, so acquiescent in our basic makeup
         that we can be stamped to shape like identical cogwheels by the com-
         mercial machinery, however powerful that machinery may be.
            The good and the true, I believe, will win out. But for that to happen


         there must be exposure. The child needs to know the range of pleasures.
         There is room for Beauty and the Beast A la Disney, but only when the
         field indudes the best that has been imagined an4 written through the
         ages. I believe, I believe - help mine unbelief.

            The form of my medstation has been - I warned-loose. Liber-
         ated by the example of Woolf, I have at times let the line of thought go
         trailing away. But there is also a point to these musings. To put it sim-
         ply: We have, perhaps without noticing, slipped over a crucial thresh-
         old. We have rather abruptly replaced our time-honored and slow-
         to-evolve modes of communication and interaction with new modes.
         We have in significant ways surmounted the constraints imposed by na-
         ture, in the process altering our relation to time, space, and to each
         other. We have scarcely begun to assess the impact of these transforma-
         tions - that will be the work of generations. What I have tried to suggest
         is that some of our lundamental assumptions about identity and subjec-
         tive meaning need to be examined carefully. For, by moving from the
         order of print to the electronic, we risk the loss of the sense of obstacle as
         well as the feel of the particular that have characterired our experience
         over millennia. We are poised at the brink of what may prove to be a
         kind of species mutation. We had better consider carefully what this
            I have been accused of being alarmist and conservative and prey to
         excessive nostalglia. And I accuse myself of cowardly pessimism. Why
         can't I embrace the necessity of historical progress? I have my reasons.
            1.1 believe that what distinguishes us as a species is not our techno-
         logical prowess, but rather our extraordinary ability to confer meaning
         on our experience and to search for dues about our purpose from the
         worid around us.
            2. I believe, too, that meaning of this kind - calll it "existential"
         meaning-has from the beginning been the product of our other great
         distinguishing aptitude: the ability to communicate symbolically
         through language. Indeed, language is the soil, the seedbed, of meaning.
         And the works of language, our literatures, have been the repository of
         our collective speculations.
            3. Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted


         and summarized, but as experience. It is a participatory arena. Through
         the process of reading we slip out of our customary tirrie orientation,
         marked by distractedness and surficiality, int9 the realm of durations.
         Only in the duration state is experience present as meaning. Only in this
         state are we prepared to consider our lives under what the philosophers
         used to call "the aspect of eternity," to questions our origins and desfma-
         tions, and to conceive of ourselves as souls.
            I am not going to argue agamst the power and usefuiness of elec-
         tronic technologies.' Nor am I going to suggest that we try to turn back
         or dismantle what we have wrought in the interests of an intensified re-
         lations to meaning. But I would urge that we not full all over ourselves in
         our haste to fflter all of our experience through circuitries. We are ins
         some danger of believing that the speed and wizardry of our gadgets
         have freed us from the sometimes arduous work of turning pages in si-
            I keep a ffle at home entitled "The Reading Wars"-there I save
         newspaper clippings and relevant notes I've jotted down. The title cap-
         tures my sense of urgency, my sense that there is a baffle going on. On
         bad days I think it's hopeless, that the forces pulling us away from
         print - and from ourselves - are too strong; that it is inevitable that
         generations by generations all independence and idlosyncrasy and depth
         will be worn away; that we will move ever more surely in lockstep, turn-
         ing ourselves into creatures of the hive, living some sort of diluted uni-
         versal dream in a perpetual present. When that fear threatens to lay me
         low, I try to remember to turn my head. There, pinned to my bulletin
         board, is a sheet of white paper covered with crayon marks. Crude
         letters, runes pan a cave wall. M's and V's and H's and P's-repeated
         over and over. My daughter's work. She came to it by herself. One after-
         noons she marched into my study with the page extended proudly. She
         wanted to know what she had written. How to answer? You wrote
         "MamahmahVuhvuhvuhHuhhuhhuhPuhpuhpuh"? Or act the inde-
         cipherable adult and say; "You just helped your dad finish something
         he's been working on for weeks"? I said neither. I complimented her
         work and let her help me pins it to the bulletins board.


İDr. Edward C. Papenfuse (instructor)
State Archivist

Office Hours by appointment
Phone: (h) 410-467-6137

Last update: 5 September 1995