The Book Problem

The Book Problem

Were the problem book people like us, it would soon go away. It is not our weaknesses, or our sentimentality, or our nostalgia. It’s As If’ we’ve become obsolete and we haven’t. By ‘we,’ I mean We the People of the Book: Jews, Christians, Islamic people and a lot of people who believe what they want.

The problem has to do with the consequences of post-print literacy. Technology has its self-serving agenda of efficiencies that, harnessed to a post-industrial capitalism, turns out to be in the interest of the few. Post-Literacy is pixilation and pixilation has two meanings. One is too be drunk.

As Michael Korda, son of the early film director Alexander Korda & long-time editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, explained it to me years before the Age of the Personal Computer, “The book is one of the most perfect things invented by man. Nothing, to date, holds information as well as print on paper. Reading print-on-paper you can comprehend and retain the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, no problem.

The next best vehicle for information, he informed me, is celluloid film. As his father explained it to him, in which about two hours of information can be comprehended and retained. With an intermission you can have Lawrence of Arabia – though I’ve met few people who understand it’s plot.

Next comes television. Now, if you’ve looked up close to a TV screen you’ve seen the pixilation, which holds information like a sieve. Hence, the attention span for the consumer of television is about 20 minutes, 30 with commercial breaks and, hence, the success of the half hour situation comedy.

With the computer’s digitalization has a finer pixilation, as any internet entrepreneur can tell you, the audience’s attention span’s from minutes to seconds. We are being pixilated and there are ulterior motives that haven’t our best interests in mind.

As all fine artists know, the difference between the way we comprehend the printed and the electronic word is the difference between a Van Gogh on line and a Van Gogh on canvas. As all poet’s know, it’s what’s lost in translation. There is no question of which is better.

The electronic word is not the answer to a problem. The book in history has been an impediment only to the enemies of freedom. Civilized people distinguish themselves as People of the Book, principled by a voraciousness of truth electronic media is too flimsy to sustain. What makes print literacy’s diminution a concern is, it sustains.

The fin-de-siècle’s greatest bubble is likely to be its technologizing itself into barbarism. As an antiquarian book dealer, for the past 36 years I’ve had a unique perspective on the change of consciousness responsible for the consequences of Post-Literacy resonating through our Culture. It’s been a front row seat to watch the demise of the print autonomies – Liberty, Justice, Equality – we’ve grown accustomed to being defaced.

So I rant: The technological word is a new strain of the word virus. A consciousness clothed in an alphabet plays by different rules than one an aural-tactile vocabulary scantily attires. Wrought by the hand for the eye it can reproduce thoughts that can’t be seen, hidden wisdoms.

Things are falling apart. Chinua Achebe’s novel by that near-same title illustrated the analogous consequences of literacy/modernity on his millennium old Igbo oral culture some have called the purest form of democracy ever practiced, rendering it the stuff of nostalgia in two generations.

Literacy precedes print culture by a mere five hundred years and print is now ceding its primacy as the receptacle of history to electronic media. When someone asks I tell them: If you want to see where we’re going, look to Nigeria. Like us, they adopted to slavery’s economics and culture. The Niger and Mississippi deltas have more in common by the hour. Out of all of history, Nigeria will have been literate for about 60 years. Meaning, they got most of their information from printed sources. They have been Post-Literate since the end of their civil war in 1971. Meaning that they get most of their information from electrical sources.

We are just coming into their model of what Marshall McLuhan liked to call Secondary Orality. I say we have been Post-Literate since September 11th, 2001, coincidentally the publication date of my Life Turns Man Up and Down: Highlife, Useful Advice and Mad English.

We’d been building up to it for a decade, since the introduction of the word processor and internet appliances. Since then most people here get their information electronically. It has effected a change of consciousness. We’ve a generation that’s known the internet from first consciousness and, trapped in a the web they’ve wove, can’t tell the real turtle soup from the mock. What do we tell them? Beware of Maya? That it was just your imagination, run away from you?

You’ve heard my rant, haven’t you?

As the world turns, cultures that have survived print are finding themselves better immunized to the ill-effects of what linguists call Secondary Orality than we are. Secondary Orality is Post-Literacy. Its media is electronic. It is about pixilated pictures talking, it is immaterial; reality is topped by virtuality and apprehension betters comprehension. The electronic word has no substance. It is selling you nothing for something. Virtual is not acceptable. Electricity can be turned off.

Which is not to say it has no place. It just needs putting in its place. The electric book may only be to the new millennium what the pocketsize paperback was to mid-century; disposable literature. In an orderly period of adjustment, as a print-borne liberal-humanist culture, we’d know better.

And what if something goes wrong? I thought librarians were getting beyond themselves when they let go of the card catalogs. My family and I lived within a mile of the World Trade Center. My book came out that day and I was to be signing copies in the World Trade Center’s Border’s Books at 10:30 that morning; the exact moment the tower collapsed. On 9.11 digital communica-tions went down and stayed down for days. There was no cell phone, no tv, there were no internets. The sky can fall. The tap can turn off.

In Secondary Orality, the oral world of the majority is in ascendance, as the literate world assumes the embattled mantle of Empire in the Age of Globalization. Ultimately this war, like all others, will be a racist war fought for money. In this war, the growing difference between the haves and the have-nots could transcend nationalist identities and assume the proportions of faith.

In its re-empowerment, orality could revenge itself by assuming modernism’s destructivist methodology of tearing everything down and putting something different in its place. Things are not what they seem. We need to listen closely to what we don’t, perhaps can’t, understand.

Nostalgia?   I don’t think so. Is Literature nostalgia? No. . Literature contains the hallowed traditions, intellectual and artistic benchmarks of who we are. Too much of me is wrapped up in literature; the users manuals for life. The books it comes in aren’t the problem. The people who don’t read them are.

4 Responses to “The Book Problem”
  1. Dave Forshtay says:

    Kurt, thank you for this testimony to the power of the printed word. I will read it again and again to discern your meanings amid your frolicsome wordplay. One typo pointed at two possibilities, then it narrowed down to one, then – wonder of wonders- it expanded to a purely intentioned statement: “…Wrought by the had for the eye…” But I don’t know ultimately what you mean here.

    The electronic breakdown of 9/11 could be a harbinger of a more harrowing dearth of communication. The EMP has been hinted at enough as so destabilizing to modern culture that it could be a terrorist’s delight. It could also be God’s laugh on us for putting so much faith in electrons. For the astronomer, it represents but a small leap of a solar flare.

    The book burnings of Fahrenheit could be represented by the inventions of the iPad, Nook and Kindle. I don’t like ’em dearly as much as books.

    Dave Forshtay
    New York
    April 22, 2012

  2. Henry Bean says:

    Proust is nostalgia for a future that hasn’t happened yet — and may never. As Frederic Jameson said, Proust describes what the world should be like after the Revolution when everyone has the time and leisure to read philosophy instead of newspapers. The electronic media are annihilating not just literacy but, as Burroughs predicted, time itself. Luckily, they haven’t quite finished the job; there’s still a little time left, but, as we all know from our lives, not much.

    • KT says:

      [applause] Amen, Brother Bean. Proust and Burroughs foreseen the scene, the old swells. Next year I intend devoting to re-remembering Things Past but check out my link to Proust, and the Maxims Thereof, a richly rewarding scarce piece of ephemera Marianne Moore recommends. Amusingly, available via Remember me to Herald Square.

  3. Norman Savage says:

    I read and thoroughly enjoyed, Books Are Weapons” piece you posted on your blog. In fact, I’m working my way through most of your blog and am liking what I’m seeing and reading. It’s disappointing, but it makes sense (historically), what has happened to reading, publishing, buying/selling. As the maw of capitalism opens wider, there is less meat for those of us who try to skate by as best we can in the conditions that that narrowing confronts us with. I’m trying, brother, to get through the next decade (maybe) without anyone feeding/bathing or dressing me. I cannot afford a decent rest home and know up close and personal the largesse of the state and their accommodations for those no longer fleet of foot or “can turn lathes in precision part factories.”

    At one point, I did think that books/poetry were weapons. This book I’ve been trying to work on for the last four years does skewer working/labor and our vaudevillian existence. Most of us should put on blackface in the morning believe leaving our pads as we try to tap dance/shuck & jive through our day to make it home. And then what? I believe I’m psychologically resistant to writing my own epitaph. That, and this economic pressure, has allowed me the “short form” that poetry affords. That’s really how I began writing and that is still the way I think. A friend who I met at St. Mark’s Church yesterday during the memorial I went to, gave me a few websites that sometimes helps those who need some bread to stay alive and who has a good idea they want to effect. I’m gonna “cruise” the site today.

    Tomorrow I’ll try and get in touch with this shyster accountant I’ve been using and ask him to make a payout deal with the IRS and see what he can come up with. I need, brother, to stay within these four walls; give a man four walls and he can do anything.

    I’m gonna continue to nibble away on your blog, glad to have found you, thankful to Frannie and the luck I’ve had so far. Even the fucking misery brought me this far. I can’t kick.

    Hang tough, brother,

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