Stan Persky, Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. 278 pp.)
I first became aware that I could read one day in the winter of 1953 when I was sitting in Mrs. Anderson’s Grade One class in room 6 of Spruce Street Elementary School in Edmonton, Alberta and was half way through a story about a snowman in the second part of my Dick and Jane Reader. The snowman, who loved the children who had made him and the things they’d attached to his body—a carrot nose, pieces of coal for his vest buttons, some straw for his hair—got ambitious and decided to leave his friends and explore the world. He walked from Edmonton (where my imagination had placed him) south, to places where the sun was warmer and there was less and less snow, and he eventually melted: by the end of the story all that is left of him was the carrot nose, the coal buttons and some pieces of straw floating in a puddle of water.
Mrs. Andersons walked by my desk just as I was reading and looking at the picture on the page featuring my dissolved hero, and she stopped and said, Norbert, what are you doing? I wanted to tell her that I had been reading a story in the second part of my Dick and Jane Reader about a snowman who melted because he walked too far away from his home, and that I was sad to see someone who had been alive turn into a puddle with things floating around in it that had been parts of his body. But all I could come up with was: I’m sad; he melted. Mrs. Anderson looked at me for a minute and then told me it was okay to be sad, but that a pupil shouldn’t “read ahead” to the second part of the Dick and Jane Reader when the rest of the class wasn’t yet “there.”
I got the “there” of the classroom mixed up with the “there” of the snowman, and since I had short months earlier done some long distance travelling myself, across a big puddle called the Atlantic Ocean (I had luckily not melted because I was on an immigrant ship called the Beaverbrea) I worried that by reading his story I had caused the snowman to overstep some kind of mark and as a result of his exuberance cease to exist. When Mrs. Anderson cautioned me then that reading ahead of the class was not a good idea, especially for a pupil who was still learning to speak English and might mix up old with new languages, not to mention real with imaginary places (okay she didn’t say this last bit, but I could hear it lurking in the background of our conversation) I silently agreed. I said good-bye to my watery hero and vowed to never look at him and his story again, or at least not until the rest of the class was there.
I broke the agreement (there was no “vow” pretty soon thereafter). I had taken my Dick and Jane Reader home (another there) and was reading the story of the snowman silently to myself, and then out loud to my younger sister, who was learning English just as I was, and when she asked if the snowman was real and I said yes and she believed me I realized something was up. Danger and power were up. I wasn’t yet at the melting part, and realized I had at my disposal a secret force: I could “read” a story, cause characters in it to live or to die; I could convince my gullible little sister of the truth of my recomposition, and, because the story was safely inside a book with strong covers (also because it was in another language than ours) I could hide this truth from my prying parents. I could create a secret world for myself and my sister, one even the steely-eyed Mrs. Anderson wouldn’t (because the Snow Man story was in another there now, ie. our home) know what I was up to.
I changed the story to my liking. I told my sister about the snowman’s melting, but added that he did not die but went to Heaven (a there I still believed in at the time). And even though I knew I was on some level telling a lie, the fact that my sister believed my story made me giddy with pride and accomplishment. My sister and I became calm, we fell asleep, and both dreamed about a snowman who crossed an ocean to a new country and then went on to school in a new language and flew from there directly to Heaven.
Reading the Twenty-first Century is Stan Persky’s “assessment of the important intellectual currents and the books that gave expression to them in the first decade of the 21st century.” It’s composed of thirty-seven essays about and reviews of books Persky has “found interesting and significant” (as he informs us in his introduction) and it is “intended as a coherent portrait of writing in a designated period.” The designated period begins with the attack of the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001, “reached a high point with the election of Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States” in November, 2008 , an event that “coincided with a global economic crisis, the most severe recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, one that is likely to continue well into this decade.”
Persky calls the book “a celebratory account of contemporary books” and “a cri de coeur against what I perceive to be an encroaching barbarism.” The cri de coeur arises partly from “the unresolved paradox of our present cultural condition” which is that “while writing is flourishing, reading is in big trouble”; it’s expanded upon in Persky’s thesis that “we are facing a cultural catastrophe whose major symptom is the decline of serious book reading, especially among young people, and a consequent array of ‘knowledge deficits’ that makes it increasingly difficult to sustain democratic society and intellectual life.”
In his introductory chapter, “Twilight of Literary Criticism,” Persky notes the “withering away of the pendant activity of literary criticism” a cultural canary-in-the-mine kind of indicator for the crisis in book reading and its effect on culture and politics. He underscores the fact his “concern about our intellectual situation is not simply aesthetic, but equally political, moral, and economic” and indicates where he’s coming from by naming his “preference for the informed mind over the ‘invisible hand’ with regard to all those areas.”
He calls on American philosopher Richard Rorty to tell us that “The point of reading a great many books is to become aware of a great number of alternative purposes, and the point of that is to become an autonomous self,’” and notes Edward Said’s remark that the novel is “the Western aesthetic form that offers the most complex image of ourselves that we have.” Persky declares that he is highlighting books that “are not only aesthetically engaging, but relevant to understanding our world and our times” and states that he prefers “stories that are innovative with respect to storytelling to those that are more conventionally ‘realistic’.” He adds that the social purpose of reading books “is to become a more effective participant in creating a better world.”
Reading’s Chapter One, titled “The Story Teller,” introduces Texas-based American writer Larry McMurtry and his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond . McMurtry is often labeled—mistakenly so, says Persky—a regional author, but has in fact, “through his appreciation of the specifics of the local, in this instance Texas…arrived at a cosmopolitan intelligence, one that reveals something about the world.”
The incongruous placement of Walter Benjamin, the Berlin intellectual and go-to guy for understanding what a story is, in a Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, McMurtry’s home town, was for me its own comment on the relationship between traditional storytelling, locally based and oral, and urban-based media and print narratives. McMurtry explains the ghost appearance in a fast junk food franchise without irony by identifying the locale, (so Persky) as “one of those rare settings with the ‘potential for storytelling of the sort Walter Benjamin favoured.”
The logic here allows Persky to make the point that “If the culture of oral storytelling is in decline…that will have consequences for written narrative as well, with respect to the list of what’s becoming obsolete and of diminishing power in our time.” He adds that “if experience and imagination, the sources of stories and books have declined in value, that doesn’t bode well for practical and intellectual life.”
In addition to the innovative story-telling preference (and desire for books relevant to understanding our world and times) Persky is “interested in fiction that is ‘necessary,’ that says things that can’t be said in any other form.” Phillip Roth’s Human Stain, the subject of Reading’s Chapter Two, “Indelible,” fits this bill. His sophisticated play with author/character trade-offs, and his limber leaps from fiction to fact and back seem indeed ‘necessary’ in a time when ‘self identity’ is speculative, ‘fluid,’ ‘contested discursive terrain,’ and the old accords between writer, text and reader are under review. Persky’s interest is also in “writing that moves back and forth across the always permeable boundary between true tales and made up stories” and that features large across Roth’s work. And his “consummate mastery as a writer is displayed in what I think of as the filigree work of the novel. All of the lesser characters…are drawn with full-bodied nuance, as Roth reveals their hypocrisies, strategic moves, and admirable strength, human complexities no less than those of the warriors of old epic.”
The warriors in Human Stain, we learn, are university teachers fighting culture wars on the ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics’ front that flourished in the early 1990s in U.S. universities. The context blends well with Roth’s true/false identity hand sleights, and added depth is supplied by Persky’s accounts from his own university teaching experience, and his discussion of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, which addresses the culture wars topic directly. He brings up the hope that the Obama election in 2008 might cool the now nation-wide, no longer academy-based US culture wars; he leaves open (as does Roth) the question of whether the ‘indelible’ nature of post-modern (or post-post-modern) identity will persist or become more apparent.
In Chapter 3, “Heroes,” Soldiers of Salamis author Javier Cercas is tracked recounting a “story about a story” that investigates an event that may or may not have taken place in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War. The resulting text ratchets up Roth’s play with the true versus the apocryphal, the real and the forgotten, and the idiosyncrasies of the present-day ‘author’. “Javier Cercas” is, alternately, in Persky’s reading of the book, “a fictionalized version of Javier Cercas, the novelist” and “Javier Cercas,” an invented character in a novel. Questions of memory, recollection and reconstruction, and the nature of heroism are the book’s themes, and they’re organized under the concept of “true tales,” stories “ ‘cut from the cloth of reality,’ ” as Cercas labels them, that come into being, says Persky, when “we become not only interested but obsessed with a…small story that opens the door to the historical memory of a whole country.”
On the subject of heroes there’s a conversation between Cercas and Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, who makes a cameo truth-as-fiction appearance in Soldiers and says a hero is someone “who considered himself a hero and gets it right. Or someone who has courage and an instinct for virtue, and therefore never makes a mistake, or at least doesn’t make a mistake the one time it matters, and therefore can’t not be a hero.’ ” Surely this is an almost perfect definition of the hero trope, important for us in an age when heroes are no more and we’re left with celebrities gnawing at the edges of this lost cultural value.
The Civil War of 1936-1939 has mostly been consciously or unconsciously forgotten in Spain. Cercas’ heroic/ironic task is therefore to get people “to become interested in a story that nobody wants to listen to anymore,” about events “whose details no one remembers or is interested in remembering.” Persky tells the sad but telling tale of his attempt to interest his philosophy students in reading Cercas’ version of a cri-de-coeur and “having some philosophical fun with ‘true tales,’ and ‘fiction,’ with ‘unreliable narrators’ the ironies of history, characters invented out of necessity…which would be a lesson about the ambiguities of ‘reality’.” Instead, he discovers that none of the students had heard about the Spanish Civil war, and thus had no context in which to locate the book’s high wire narrative antics. In “the hole in the classroom that trained teachers notice” when presenting an idea or topic and encountering empty (not to mention mobile technology bound) faces, Persky notes the big question: “how do you discuss a novel about the nature of historical memory with people who have no historical memory?”
Reading’s Chapter Three alerted me to the organizational strategy that gives Reading the discursive through-line to turn a collection of reviews into a sustained argument and narrative plot. If the nature of story-telling and truth (Chapter One) leads to identity, truth-and-dare fact-cum-fiction discussions (Chapter Two) and these lead to the question of heroism and the possibility of its survival in an age of forgetting and historical amnesia (Chapter Three) the logical next installment of the tale will focus on the survival chances of the very ability of readers to comprehend a sustained book-length argument and/or story.
Chapter Four, “Ignorance in the Desert,” is one of the book’s core chapters. It addresses directly “the central intellectual themes of the decade,” which are also “the central themes of this book.” Picking up concerns voiced in his Introduction, Persky notes that “Intellectuals have perennially observed that among the activities at the heart of human understanding are reading and conversation.” He rearticulates concern about the intellectual crisis he sees as pending, and introduces books from the beginning of the century whose writers have “argued cogently that our methods for comprehension are in the process of atrophying, and that much of conversation has been reduced to mere chatting and twittering, and that the decline of serious reading [books relevant to understanding our world and times] threatens our ability to sustain thought.”
The books under review here are Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason , Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) and Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008)., For Susan Jacoby, Persky reports, “the decline of intellectual engagement is not simply a matter of less reading, but that ‘the inescapable theme of our time is the erosion of memory and knowledge.’ ” She blames the erosion on anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism which “ ‘flourish in a mix that includes addiction to infotainment, every form of superstition and credulity, and an education system that does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic underlying those skills.’ ” She goes on to blame “ ‘an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise’ ” for the demise of “ ‘contemplation and logic.’ ”
Jacoby, we learn, cites an array of surveys that document the dumbing down of the American population (when it comes to, for example, scientific versus creationist accounts of human evolution) and recalls, by way of comparison, a “middlebrow reading culture” that flourished in the 1950s. This culture was replaced by the current “culture of distraction encouraged by infotainment media” that undermines the “willed attention demanded by print.” Jacoby brings into the argument the studies that document reading’s surrender to television viewing as source number one of information and entertainment, and she reprises the well-known statistic that four out of ten US adults read no books at all.
On the ‘cultural context’ front, a mainstay Persky concern, he notes Jacoby’s point that in the world where wrap-around media and round-the-clock Internet and Web access constitute “ ‘the fabric of our lives,’ ” turning the machines off is difficult business and can threaten one’s identity. The ‘addiction factor’ needs to be considered. Persky feels Jacoby could have said more about “what the difference is between reading as an act of thought and mere consumption of visual infotainment.” On the question of reading versus non-reading statistics, the issue is “not whether there was or wasn’t a Golden Age of Reading in the past, but that the proportion of readers has diminished since the middle of the last century despite the vastly increased opportunities for reading today,” he argues. What’s taking place today “looks more like a paradigm shift than mere disaffection with Gutenberg’s printing press.”
Mark Bauerlein, an English prof who conducts research and analysis for the US National Endowment for the Arts, is next in line. His The Dumbest Generation , we learn, reports on “the intellectual condition of young Americans,” and discovers, on the basis of empirical evidence, “something insidious inside their heads,” a circumstance which charts “a consistent and perilous momentum downward.” Bauerlein, we’re told, documents “the virtual end of reading among the young,” and “significant knowledge deficits about history, geography, science and art and an ignorance of civic life that poses a threat to democratic society.”
Bauerlein’s dismal portrait, Persky lets us know, is rebutted by the line that “the young are reading more than ever, via the Internet,” and that “the kids are [therefore] all right.” He cites one of this line’s proponents, Don Tapscott, a regular cheerleader for this ‘majority opinion.’ Tapscott claims, in his widely-read book, Growing Up Digital (2008), that the young are reading “plenty of non-fiction on the Internet” which can be “just as intellectually challenging as reading a book.” In his job as Chairman of Genera Insight, a US business consulting firm, Persky goes on, Tapscott is a regular promoter of the wonders of digital media, its rational if not necessarily logical functionality, its promises for a brighter, more informed, if not necessarily more intelligent future. Persky wonders why Bauerlein’s publisher over-hyped the book’s packaging and gave it the provocative sub-title—Or Don’t Trust Anyone Under Thirty—which “gives the lie to a good part of the book’s sober well-researched content” and his fuse blows when Bauerlein faults the 1960’s youth movement for the present malaise. He critiques Bauerlein for conveying “no sense of the market-driven, mindless—okay, let’s say it—capitalist culture context driving the present era,” and for showing “little inclination to go on to ask that famous political question, ‘What is to be done?’ ” a question Persky immediately answers with: “To reverse the decline in reading, knowledge and democracy, we would have to transform the relationship between the marketplace culture and society.”
Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the ForgottenTwentieth Century, collects two dozen of his essays from the past decade or so, “all of which reflect on aspects of what he [Judt] fears is an already forgotten era.” Persky, who knows these ropes, notices that Judt’s collection “is strikingly more coherent and tightly argued than one might expect from a compilation of seemingly disparate essays,” and that the reasons for “its quality of sustained thought are that Judt’s essays are unfailingly interesting, knowledgeable without being pedantic, well-written, conscientious but not cranky, and straight-from-the-headlines relevant.”
The Twentieth Century was, in Judt’s reading, “a time of virtually unbroken war: continental war, colonial war, civil war,” and that the United Sates escaped a lot of the horror and destruction, and thus came out of the twentieth century with the idea that “war works,” a proposition, Judt says, that was applied in the Iraq war.
Persky relays Judt’s contention that “After war, the second characteristic of the twentieth century was the rise and subsequent fall of the state.” The rise refers to the nation building and creating that followed the two world wars and the liberation wars of former colonies, and the fall refers to the “diminution of state power” in the last thirty years, “ ‘at the hands of multinational corporations, transnational institutions, and the accelerated movement of people, money and goods outside their control.’ ” Persky fills us in on the seesaw developments in the post WWII years when, says Judt, “it was widely accepted that the modern state could—and therefore should—perform the providential roles; ideally without intruding excessively upon the liberty of its subjects” and the century’s last thirty years, in which the nation state was seen less and less as a custodian for its citizen and more and more as a fixer for global corporations.
Persky concludes the “Desert” Chapter with discussion of Judt’s plea for the placement of the state and politics at the centre of thought and action again, because “only the nation state can ameliorate the inhuman condition” that is everywhere evident, and said state is “ ‘all that can stand between citizens and the unrestricted, unrepresentative, unlegitimated capacities of markets.’ ”
I’ve reprised in detail the content of Reading’s first four chapters to give a sense of my engagement with the text and to convey something of the flavour of Persky’s style and approach to reading and writing practice. When approached by dooneyscafe.com to write this piece I realized pretty quickly that the standard review format, complete with mild semi self-congratulatory commentary and breathlessly quotable blurblines like “this is the most important book of literary criticism written by a Canadian in the last twenty-five years”—which is, amazingly enough, in this case true—was not applicable. So I decided to take a long-form Reading-Persky-Reading approach, which, given that the twilight of serious book reviewing is one of Reading’s key laments, seemed appropriate for the occasion. My 28,000 word first draft was, predictably, too long for both website and magazine consumption (I was overly enthusiastic, like my snowman, and reprised every chapter) and so I offer in its place this—to borrow a Persky book title from some years ago—Short Version.
Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Chapter Seven: “In the Land of Amos Oz”) brings to the fore so many of Persky’s readerly interests—innovatively necessary storytelling, alertness to a story’s cultural context: the “story about the story,” attention to the political, economic and moral dimensions of a tale, to the story genre itself as a keynote form for conveying the ideas and plotlines that nourish both historical and personal memory—that it easily functions as a centerpiece for Reading’s entire project. Persky describes the book as “at once a writer’s coming-of-age story, a boy’s heartbreaking experience of coming-to-grief, grief that permanently tempers the innocence of childhood, and because of where and when the tale takes place, a man’s account of coming-to-terms with being a citizen of a nation born in violence and against the wishes of its political neighbours.” Persky delights in the techniques Oz deploys to “re-imagine childhood” and to examine the relationships between memory and invention, recall and reconstruction, and he’s charmed when Oz draws the reader into the story and the story-of-the-story so elegantly that the “join” is invisible.
Oz’s coming-of-age as boy and writer, we learn, hinges on the loss of his mother (Fania) when he was thirteen. He makes what Persky calls “an interesting literary move” when “in order to vividly reconstruct her childhood in Rovno [a city in Poland] in the 1920s, he visits his surviving aunt Sonia (one of his mother’s sisters) in present-day Tel Aviv and she tells him stories of her youth. About a quarter of the way into the book, Oz lets her take over, and for about fifty pages there is only the voice of this octogenarian aunt Sonia remembering her and her sister’s girlhood, recounting the tales of long-ago lives and gossip about them.” Neither Persky, nor I (when I was reading Oz’s book) had encountered this kind of “move” before—except of course in fiction, where “Aunt Sonia” would be a “character,” not a person living in Tel Aviv. As a memoir device it nudges so delicately and firmly against the border between recall and imagination (how on earth could he possible remember, verbatim, fifty pages of speech?!) that we seem to be inside memory itself as we read.
There are other instances in which compositional mastery is on display. “In a passage about the vagaries of memory,” Persky writes, “Oz suddenly says ‘Almost sixty years have gone by, and yet I can still remember his smell. I summon it and it returns to me, a slightly coarse, dusty, but strong and pleasant smell…and it borders on the memory of the feel of his skin, his flowing locks, is thick mustache that rubbed against the skin of my cheek.’ ” The recallee (or smellee) is Israeli writer Saul Tchernikhowsky, whom Oz meets as a four-year-old in his uncle Joseph Klausner’s home, and conjectures now, at 70, that “ ‘this sensual recollection can only have survived by passing through several stages of transmission and amplification,’ ” as, Persky adds, “do many of the invoked memories of Oz’s book.
“The distinction between the romanticized memory and the real recollection,” Persky goes on, “is among the writerly things that makes Oz’s Tale one of the great books of the decade.” Recounting another memory involving a conversation with a teacher with whom he fell in love as an eight-year-old, Oz writes, “Naturally I am reconstructing…our conversation from memory—like trying to restore an ancient ruined building on the basis of seven or eight stones that are still standing.” And since the memory of their encounter is itself a quarter century old, Oz says, “in all these recollections my task is a bit like that of someone trying to build something out of old stones that he is digging out of the ruins of something that was also, in its day, built out of stones from a ruin.” Can there be a better definition of autobiographical writing, Persky asks, “than building on the ruins of ruins?” Indeed.
Persky introduces a cornucopia of titles in the second half of Reading. They’re organized thematically, in accord with the themes in the book’s line of argument, and begin with “Homeland Alone: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq.” The title’s a play on the 1990 Hollywood comedy, Home Alone, and the discussion of the eight books under review focuses attention on the back-and-behind-the-news-stories that fill in the gaps and give narrative (and intellectual) sense to the flurry of 24 hour news cycle reportage of America’s “war on terror.” The agenda here, for Persky, is that we must consider the context—historical, cultural, economic, moral—in which “news” takes place in order to properly understand what’s going on in said place (the world) and that only long (ie. book) form journalism can do the job. We’re taken, by the line-up of New York Times, Washington Post and New Yorker journalists, into the guts of the invasion stories: the West Wing of the Bush White House, the back rooms of CIA stratagems, the “Green Zone” in Baghdad, where “ ‘bronzed young men with rippling muscles and tattooed forearms plunge into the American spa-style swimming pool in the back garden of the Republican Palace while blasting heavy metal and Hip Hop music’ ” and the cognitive disconnects between the Iraqi and Afghanistani conversations about what’s going on, and the American versions of said same conversation proliferate. The chapter underscores Persky’s contention that ‘journalism,’ as a genre, should be read with the same intellectual and aesthetic engagement one gives to novels, memoir and other “literary” genres, that all of the above are “writing” and worthy serious readerly attention.
A tender, attentive, intimate report on Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir, The Lost: a Search for Six of the Six Million, follows in Chapter Eight, “Lost and Found,” and the thematic link here is memory’s relation to not only personal and family, but also cultural history, and the role of story-telling-recall in properly organizing this combination. The narrative tracks Mendelsohn’s attempt to find six victims of the Polish town in which his great uncle lived and whose Jewish population had been all but wiped out by the Nazis in the 1940s. The story is contexted into the story-about-the story, ie., the reader hears from a few survivors, who are eventually tracked down in their scattered locations across the globe, and hears also the story that Mendelsohn tells himself about his multi-year odyssey. A third layer of abstraction—or context—to Persky’s delight, is given by Mendelsohn’s placement of both narratives into a larger frame, that of Talmudic Commentaries. The reading flavour thus produced grounds Persky’s appetite for innovative story-telling, texts relevant to understanding our world and times, and books that allow necessary border crossings between factual and imaginative accounting.
“Walking, Seeing, Shelving,” Chapter Nine, introduces three writers who are also Persky’s friends, and what’s under consideration here is the relation of the local to the global in story-making. The reader meets Terry Glavin, a B.C. author, former journalist, and expert in cross-referencing myth, folklore, data, news, commentary, when weaving his tales. His book, Waiting for the Macaws, investigates international and local environmental crisis zones and points to the natural “extinctions” that are also, cultural extinctions. Glavin’s genius, Persky tells us, is that he doesn’t shy away from ignoring the culture/nature boundary—just as he doesn’t flinch from mixing mythical and scientific truth production—and understanding in both cases that the losses of natural diversity resonate directly with the losses of cultural diversity, especially of languages.
One thing Persky likes about his friend and teaching buddy Ryan Knighton is his “otherness.” Knighton is blind, and his book, Cockeyed: a Memoir, draws Persky’s attention to, among other matters, that which is “missed,” and is not in the picture that the rest of us in the sighted world inhabit. Again, a delight for a reader who enjoys the unorthodox, the novel, the unlikely, the necessary, that which is revealed when the writing is smooth and one doesn’t notice the artifice that makes the newness seem natural. Persky opens the expected question of whether Knighton is a “blind writer,” or just a “writer,” opts for the latter, and is pleased again to discover “writing,” regardless of genre, to be something that can link Others to others, them to us and us to them, in ways that no other mode of communication can.
Persky’s friend Alberto Manguel, one of the world’s great readers of many languages, is the ultimate cosmopolitan: “civilization’s gift to Canada,” as Persky once dubbed him. And The Library at Night, his 2006 book, another in Manguel’s trademark “personal histories”—of writing, of reading, of images, and now libraries—once more fits the bill of being composed “with appropriate gravitas, but always with a lightness of touch that other writers strive for.” Manguel touches on both the celebratory and the cri de coeur side of Persky’s project: he lauds the survival of books, their subversive potential and relation to individual freedom, their resilience through eons of history; he laments the fact they are often burned, that readers have always been a minority in a world of non readers, one that may well be culturally endangered, threatened by digital media hegemonies—all threats against which the library is a line of defense. He’s on side with Persky in these accountings, but a touch more optimistic, convinced with a certain ballsiness, that the reading minority will continue with its orderings of the world via bookish protocols and inhabiting the special region in which readers and writers imaginatively meet, often in secret, when encountering the pages they share. Manguel is a must-read presence in Persky’s new century pantheon.
“One of the most striking intellectual developments of the past decade,” Persky announces in the opening sentence of Chapter 10, “The Gods That Failed: Richard Dawkins” is “the renewed advocacy of atheism. More important, increasing numbers of scientists and philosophers and other intellectuals, perhaps disturbed by the consequences of Christian and Islamic fundamentalist religious beliefs in the first decade of the 21st century, have decided to ‘come out’ and declare that as far as they know God doesn’t exist.”
Dawkins’s The God Delusion is the item under discussion, and comes as part of a “Biblical Deluge” of commentary on the New Atheism, the main discussants of which Persky introduces and critiques. The chapter is a cornerstone of Reading and well displays Persky’s philosophy prof smarts and his talent at making complex ideas easy to understand. If you want a thorough “potted plant history” (as Persky labels his little “historical context” backgrounders) of philosophico-religeous turns of phrase and spiritual direction from the Middle Ages to yesterday, from theism to deism to secularism to scientism and atheism, and even New Ageism, this chapter is your go-to read.
Persky tells us Dawkins’ book “is meant to be a provocative, lively, popular work, aimed at a readership of ordinary literary people.” He’s aiming especially at “the doubters,” but “it’s likely also true that a lot of his readers are already non-believers who want their views confirmed and their arguments buttressed.” There’s some further context then, and we get filled in on the responses to Dawkins’ polemic (he was labeled a “theological vulgarian” and a “middle brow” in the London Review of Books) and on discussions of how to correlate Mideastern Islamic and U.S. Christian fundamentalisms (“80 percent of Americans claim to believe in God without any doubts,” Persky lets us know). And there’s a final flourish as Persky gives the reader his stripped-down expert version of the five classical philosophical “proofs” for God’s existence (none of which convince him).
A long Chapter Eleven follows, which Persky labels “Exit Strategies,” a term he picks up from Thomas Hobbes’ blunt sense of seeking “a hole to crawl out of this world from,” when, as a self conscious animal and non God believer one faces mortality. It also plays on Margaret Drabble’s note that in one’s seventieth year (Persky’s current one) one must work out “survival strategies.” Edward Said’s memoir, On Later Style: Music Against the Grain, Czeslaw Milosz’s ABCs, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions, and Philip Roth’s string of novels, from Human Stain (2000) through The Dying Animal (2001) The Plot Against America (2004) to Exit Ghost (2007) are under review here. Persky considers Roth “the pre-eminent living novelist in the United States,” and in each novel he treats, he favours the innovative compositional techniques, the serious attention to contemporary matters, and Roth’s sheer chutzpah in keeping on writing well into his seventy-fifth year.
In Saramago, Persky relishes the play between folk tale, political satire, and fictional invention; in Coetzee the innovative post-realism play with character, plot and narrative positioning; in Kapuscinski the homage to Herodotus, who, with his exacting search for the truth about memory, blended fact and necessary fiction in a way that laid the groundwork for a good deal of Western historiography (not to mention journalism); and Milosz for his understanding that poetic speech and writing is the closest method by which to render old age and death as lived language.
“Other Voices, Other Realms,” Chapter Twelve, explores the delicate and necessary question of how writing by non Western authors, written in, or translated into, English is to be “read” by us, the (so called) Westerners. The arrival of the colonial-era ‘Other’ on the shores of the colonizer countries, and writing from within their territory and language, forces a conversation that will define the thought and story content of the century of which Persky’s opening literary salvo can be a harbinger and model for conversations-to-come.
The authors are Azar Nafisi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Khaled Hosseini, Hisham Matar, Ma Jian, and Shariar Mandanipour. Persky adapts the chapter title from Truman Capote’s 1948 novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms “in which heretofore unheard voices resounded,” and points also to Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2009). “It’s not immediately clear,” he lets us know, “how to categorize these books from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, or if we need to do so. They are of course ‘international’ literature but then, so are the works of Jose Saramago, Amos Oz, J.M. Coetzee Javier Cercas. For that matter, so are the books of Philip Roth and other writers ‘closer to home,’ depending on where home happens to be. In that sense, ‘international’ is simply a relative term, an ‘elsewhere’ from the perspective of where one is.” Persky’s makes the point here “that the increasing presence of books from all over the world at the beginning of the 21st century is an indicator that there is no longer an ‘elsewhere,’ except relatively speaking… What we once thought of as ‘other voices’ are now more appropriately recognized as simply the author’s own voice.”
A play on Marx’s and Engels’ opening line of the Communist Manifesto leads us into Reading’s Chapter 13, “Haunted by a Spectre: Krugman, Klein, Stiglitz.” It examines key books about “The Great Recession” or, as Persky labels the 2008 malaise in the world financial system, “Our present economic hell.” The chapter starts with a thorough review of The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, by Paul Krugman, Persky’s “favourite Virgil-like guide,” who, in one of his New York Times columns, famously asked how different the notorious Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, the biggest in financial history ($50 billion), “really was from the story of the investment industry as a whole.” Persky continues with discussion of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and of the second edition of its best-selling predecessor, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, and ends with Joseph Stiglitz’s Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, in which the Nobel Prize winning economist, after explaining what happened, wonders how business as usual could continue to happen immediately after what happened.
Persky “gasps with astonishment” at “how little most people (including me) know about what is really going on.” There’s an intermezzo in which we go, with Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, into the Hades of $8.89 per hour work at a Wal-Mart store, and meet the America on whose behalf Barack Obama keeps promising to enact government policy. And as context, or stories-about-or-behind-the-story, the books under review here take their place as instruction for how to think about what governs us, and aides memoire for recent and often already forgotten recent events.
“The state of our overall cultural context is obscured for many,” Persky writes in his concluding chaptetr, “Code Red,” “by the present technological revolution in digital information and entertainment devices, which is itself part of the cultural context.” He reiterates the “paradox” that writing in the 21st century’s first decade is flourishing while “book reading is in decline, especially among young people. The situation ought to set off alarms, even if not yet of the code red variety.” The “glittering emporia where the latest infotainment devices are on sale” obscures this reality, and does its bit to turn reading from “understanding” into “scanning for information.” He explains that “cultural context” refers to “an entire ensemble of activities and artifacts that occupies significant portions of our lives. It includes reading but also takes in playing video games, chatting on cellphones (or ‘texting’ or ‘sexting’), Internet surfing, watching YouTube or ‘friending’ people on Facebook and other social networking sites. It includes much of the political apparatus, the entire education system, television, films, advertising, pornography, and the vast, lucrative realm of sport spectatorship—much of it accompanied by the ubiquitous iPod soundtrack that provides the pulse of many people’s lives. Examination of our cultural context inevitably involves judgments about the quality of materials with which we’re engaged…and, as I’ve suggested by discussing a broad range of books about current events, evaluation of our cultural context is inseparable from politics, economics, moral progress (or the lack thereof) and our understanding of our own historical situation.”
So we are back here with the key questions about memory, intellectual thought and life, informed democratic citizenship, knowledge deficits, the need for reflective long-term reading attention (what Persky in another context has labeled “mono-” as opposed to “multi-tasking”) and the nature of story reading as opposed to fact gathering as the basis for reasoned decision making. Persky cites a few of the many books from the 21st century’s second decade on the question of what digital and Internet communication is “doing to our brains,” and while he does not consider this debate to be “unique to our era…Each generation in every culture faces its own intellectual challenges, but what’s at stake here is how we succeed or fail in addressing the particular issues of our time.”
Persky finds much of the discussion on the issues to be too narrow to address the cultural context and finds the “denial that there’s a problem” and the “scoffing at what are seen as perennial complaints of the elderly about the behaviour of the young,” tiresome. He considers a lot of this discussion misguided: “The question of whether we read our books in the form of a ‘printed codex’ or on an e-reader can obscure the issue of whether we’re reading at all, and if we are, whether what we’re reading is any good.” Furthermore, “The effort to understand what the Internet and other devices are doing to our brains is interesting but shouldn’t divert us from critically examining the contexts of the information systems we’re employing.” Persky wants Marshall McLuhan’s famous claim that “the medium is the message” to be corrected to “acknowledge that the message is also the message, irrespective of how it is transmitted by various media.” He disputes the nay-sayers’ claims that book reading is not deteriorating and engendering knowledge defects by re-citing the statistics put forth in the books he’s discussed, and calling to our attention his experience as a university teacher. His own and others’ students “maintain a variety of individual identities,” he repeats, “but their sense of being citizens of a democracy, if it ever existed, has atrophied.”
Persky concludes, “the schematic version of what is a far more complex argument that can be essayed in a brief conclusion is that if a sufficient number of people read the ‘books of the decade,’ ignorance would be diminished, the threat of amnesia averted, and the possibility of sustaining a democratic society and significant intellectual life would be enhanced. (My use of ‘books’ here serves as a metonym for the larger cultural context.)”
When I review my own sense of the concerns Persky is cataloguing in his cri de coeur I notice I am somewhat less pessimistic about the future of book reading, of critical intelligence, of the threat posed by electronic and digital media, and even of the survival of democracy. Yes, I note the decline of interest among the young in history, philosophy, party politics and (so I think) the kind of long-winded lets-change-the-world conversations I recall having with my friends when we were twenty-something students. But I also discover, when teaching my undergraduate Communication students or conversing with my early-thirties daughter and her friends, a smartness and agile intelligence, a canny realism partnered with a honed sense of irony. The ability to “think laterally” and “outside the box,” often touted by digital and new media enthusiasts as constituting the new intelligence, one based not in books but in clever machines (and nimble fingers) is in strong evidence—even as the (for me) logic-defying irony that the new networked “digital commons” are owned and operated by private corporations pushes up against the new “paradigm.”
Is this an example of dumbing down? I’m not sure. It seems more like a kind of survival strategy, and a fairly creative one. When I talk with my students and my daughter about privacy and surveillance issues involved in the “social media” world, for example, they acknowledge the risks and make follow-up arguments. Some cite the, from my perspective, lobotomizing Facebook claim that privacy (like Henry Ford’s history?) is bunk and everything’s now public, “open source.” Others claim they have nothing to hide so why worry (as Alfred E. Newman in my day used to quip). (Actually, his phrase was “What, me worry?” ) Meanwhile they expertly massage their “privacy settings,” change names, on-line identities, photo and video reconstructions, and play with the new idiom in the way I recall playing with, and alternatively recontextualizing, what’s now but was not back then called “mainstream media.” The stakes, I agree, are higher now as globalized capitalism tightens the corporate grip on communication and culture, but I’m not ready to despair. I’m encouraged by the role cellphones and social media played in the fall of Middle East dictators, by the organizing capacities social media and “personal technology” have demonstrated in initiatives like the Occupy Movement, by the multi-media mobile-equipped “citizen journalist” challenges to the complacencies and monopolistic practices of corporate media. I enjoy the “posts” I receive from those for whom Facebook news circulation is the channel of choice in the new media regime.
Yes, long form reading and the kind of “willed attention” and intelligence it fosters is faltering, and the possible replacement of long-winded conversing by ‘texting’ ‘tweeting’ and other modes of textual chat, is of concern; and I worry, as does Persky, about the survival of book length story-telling, argument, and fact-based discourse, and the modes of memory and recognition these lexica provide. A knowledge deficit, I agree, looms, and one isn’t, when of my and Persky’s generation, clear on what ways of knowing digital and Internet linked-up communication regimes might provide by way of antidote. Memory, in a world of Googlemania, is under review, even reconstruction, and the ideology behind Google’s keyword drop-down menu approach to what’s real and true and beautiful needs to be understood, and then in an orderly manner critiqued by all who are concerned with the education of youth. This requires face-to-face communications, ie. conversation, and assault on a milieu in which scanning for information bullies traditional reading for knowledge and understanding out of the picture frame.
The milieu is of course not a construction of youth (as the “dumbing down” line of argument sometimes strays into alluding) but of corporate globalized capitalism in its market fundamentalist mode, where the mind is territory to be colonized by techi toys. The resulting “persons” must, goaded by incessant advertising, learn and then immediately forget that they are the real products of media generated “realities” plus hyper realities, and that mass media are the tools/weapons of mass reconstruction. These media, when taken in turn into the hands of a current generation of “users,” will constitute half of the combative ground in which questions of what’s text and what’s context, what’s medium and what’s message, and who gets to construct the message (the story) and who constructs the “meaning” of the message, will be fought over. The other half is physical reality, “the environment,” as it’s too often twisted into being labeled, and a notion of “Globe” that outreaches and outsmarts Internet thinking by placing the “self” into physical/mental locations and their communities.
Terry Glavin has the right angle on this, as does LarryMcMurtry, as do Amos Oz, Daniel Mendelsohn, Javier Cercas, Alberto Manguel: as does Walter Benjamin, who, whether he’s walking around being smart in urban Berlin, or sitting almost invisibly in a small town Texas Dairy Queen, understands what a story is and how it touches, inspires, activates, sparks human intelligence, speaks truth to body and brain. Thinking in places, not solely with things (products, technologies) might be the new name of the game. Once one has removed the Pied Piper-like allure of the Internet as an alternative, i.e., brought it down to earth into physical communities where talk and walk can time share with screen life-and-learning, a new paradigm of knowledge, memory and thought-plus-action, might (I’ll imagine now) emerge.
The “kids” I speak with understand this concept. I’m not totally unhappy about the fact they time-share their conversations—their story telling—with each other (or me) via machine and not word-of-mouth, as I think is proper. But I trust there’s a learning curve at work here, one I’m not privy to, or even able always to comprehend, but which, with a bit of patience, I can accept in a senior manner. There’s the “media addiction” problem, about which I talk a lot to the students and propose reading and writing and talking, not scanning and texting as palliative. They mumble and nod; they get it, resist, sometimes get in the mood and practice this exotic art. A not bad number of them have been readers since childhood and keep up the habit. I close off the conversation then by telling them to get out and vote, join political parties, get physically, verbally, active in politics.
Vis-a-vis the book and its Enlightenment project style of learning and living and being linear in one’s thinking, I follow Manguel’s notice that book readers have always been a minority, their linear practices have produced wondrous but also catastrophic realities; I add Persky’s line that reading and literacy, as a bulwarks against faith-based tribalism, even barbarism, remain an absolute necessity and need to be publically supported and sponsored. The context for a campaign to bring this knowledge more firmly to the table would be work, by teachers, intellectuals, writers, to engage the new contexts in which reading and writing and conversations are also taking place—with regard to both media, and physical location—and line book learning up with the outside-and-beside-the-box (or sometimes the point) digital multitasking. Next job then is to clarify which power/knowledge regimes/institutions are at work systematically spreading illiteracy in the interest of enclosing the mental commons, even as they choke and deplete the physical ones.
Books, in this reckoning, are touchstones or talismans that connect an old way of thinking and doing (as the title of my Grade One Work Book in Mrs. Anderson’s class had it) called storytelling with a more recent one, called print, and then loop both forward and backward to connect the new electronic and digital wannabe cyberstorytellers with their vocal place-bound ancestors. Marshall McLuhan promoted this alchemical art and called the new media (in his day radio and television) tribal drums, a matrix that offered release from the print world’s strictures, laws, religions, and he fell out of favour for such overzealous metaphoring and lack of concern about tribalization’s many evils (the message part of the metaphor). But he’s back now, duly corrected, and both hot and cool (as my students describe the objects of their desires) and he can be rendered both cool and hot—I’ve tried it!—at times by nothing more than the words of a poor simple college instructor who’s tolling the bell of time and history, prompting reading and writing as the secret keys to understanding where their talking and texting and friending, and metatexting and all the “whatever” hails from, and where they can take them. His words try to edge them toward the truth about what a story is, and what the difference is between a good story and a bad one.
I’ll recall, as I write this, the snowman who started me off on this long trek into Persky’s literary territory, and I’ll remind the reader that it’s okay today to leave your country and go to other places even when other people in the class are not yet there: so long as you don’t forget where you started from, or are when you fiddle around in Cyberspace.
I’ll also offer a few criticisms—Reading might have included more empirical data on the decline of reading and the knowledge deficits; a bit more emphasis could have been given to the forces behind the “paradox” that writing is getting better and reading is deteriorating (“it’s the political economy….not the kids!”); the in-depth reviews/essays, brilliant in themselves, occasionally lose their hold on the book’s discursive through-line—but I can otherwise say that, yes, Reading’s an intellectual page turner that fosters long-form reading attention and tells a story only a book can tell. And after saying this I’ll melt and leave you, the reader, alone with your thoughts and books and devices.
8897 words June 1st, 2012