Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Web: "Largely an Invention of the Devil"

So says Michael Dirda in today's Outlook section of the Washington Post (registration required), on the NEA's report on the decline of reading:
[I] was fairly late in coming to the National Endowment for the Arts' "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America."
No doubt I could have looked online for the report, but I prefer to regard the Web as largely an invention of the Devil. I use the thing for e-mail, but that's just about it. I have seen the best minds of the next generation, and a few from my own, destroyed by its insidious ensorcelments.
Insidious ensorcelments?

He continues:

Still, at least one in six people reads something between bound covers each month, and I suppose we should be grateful for this saving remnant. Yet what the NEA report fails to say is that most of those people have chosen the very same 12 books, starting with "The Da Vinci Code," followed by a) the latest movie tie-in, and b) whatever Oprah Winfrey has recommended lately.
And Amen to the following:
But most of the bestseller list tends to be innately ephemeral -- jumped-up magazine articles, journalistic dispatches in disguise, commercial novels that are essentially screenplays-in-waiting, heavy on plot, shock and spectacle. Such works can hardly be called literary reading. They are entertainments, little more than 250-page TV shows and documentaries.
So what's a good book? He tells us:
Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly. We are left shaken and stirred.
So why is the web an invention of the devil?
"Reading at Risk" is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knock-out punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, "Print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability -- and the many sorts of human continuity it allows -- would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment." So, more and more we know less and less about less and less. And we don't care. Who among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly "edgy"?
Ouch. At least he didn't mention blogs by name. Oh, wait, he does:
But come the dawn and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or gaze at digitized lovelies or go to still another movie? Instead of reading Toqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life is worth living.
Double ouch. Meretricious tinsel, hahaha. Dirda, you Luddite. Badmouth the web all you want. There's still a breathing Anakin within the Vader that is the web. You can get a good daily poem here, read good short stories in the New Yorker (like this one and this one), the Atlantic, and other online journals, and even novels, provided that their authors have been dead for at least 50 years. Finally, Mr. Dirda, I'll never give up reading your weekly online discussions on books. See, the value in your discussions and in reading the good blogs is that they help us decide what to read. Now if only we could turn our eyes away from the monitor long enough to do so...

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