Reading has fallen out of favor. I mean the kind that requires more than 140 characters, which is the limit for Tweets. But even Twitter is no stranger to hard times, having lost over $2 billion since launching over a decade ago. Proving that there are loads of us eager to express ourselves, just nobody around to hear what we have to say. The art of listening has fallen into decay. And it's made even President Obama worried. He recently asked the novelist Marilynne Robinson about the cultural impacts of the decline in reading. Obama declares that most of what he's learned in life - the stuff of importance, such as empathy, and ambiguity, the search for truth and the ability to connect with those who are different than oneself - has come from novels. I don't know which books Obama is referring to, but I doubt he's reading much of what's out there today.
Because the current deluge of self-absorbed novels, such as those by the Norwegian Knausgaard, who by the way has great hair, reflects our world-wide tendency, facilitated by social medias and selfies, to collectively contemplate our noses. In other words the novels are written by authors locked in their minds about characters locked in their minds for readers locked in their minds. Goodness knows how the few readers that do read today's self-conscious self-exposure fiction can be coaxed to take time away from their own personal lives. It's surely not the writing style of these works, which is jumpy, jagged and digressive. No Jane Austen here. Instead of that great author's Pride and Prejudice, we are reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if that's any consolation. That is when we're not taking selfies and photographing our food.
Okay, so we are all celebrities, at least in our own minds, and not just the younger, "Me" generation. Knausgaard is older than me. Wait, the Me generation actually refers to the Baby Boomers, so at nearly fifty Knausgaard fits right in. The younger generation is just better at Tweets. But does the tree falling in an uninhabited forest make a sound? Some would argue no, not if nobody hears it. If the only person who reads your Tweets is you, just like the only person who reads my words is me, is there even a point to writing them? I believe there is, or else you wouldn't be reading this. I forgot, you aren't anyway. But even though you aren't, my words still exist. They are my way to play at being creative, engage in self-expression, use words like indubitably for no reason other than it sounds funny and because I can.
I still read books, both fiction and non. And while I have recently been seduced by the fact-based, statistics heavy work of writers treating 21st century concerns like factory farming and fathering, a novel is always bedside, if only on my Kindle. Which I think is out of batteries. It's been a while. The last novel I read was Dostoevsky's Demons. Though it was written in the 1800s and set in Russia, I could relate to most every phrase on every page, many of which had me in stitches. I don't know that humor was the author's intention. Besides, it was free. Lucky me.
And when I look back at my life's most trying times, it was always a novel that got me through. When my first girlfriend and I broke up junior year of high school, I had been reading Mark Twain's Huck Finn. It was assigned reading for English class, and I got so swept away in the character's picaresque adventures I forgot about my heartache. In one scene Finn, who is on the run, dresses up like a girl, and when he is harassed by someone in the particular town he happens to be passing through, he pleads, "Please to not poke fun at a poor girl like me." This line had me rolling for reasons I still cannot fully explain. A few years later a string of personal tragedies, including my brother's death, my parent's separation and more romantic turmoil, I happened to get my hands on Voltaire's Candide. This slim volume, about a naive young man who refuses to dispense with the notion taught him by his philosopher/mentor that "the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds" proceeds to undergo the most severe hardships I had ever read about. The particular ordeals escape my recollection. Something about being stranded at sea, sold into slavery, flogged. In any event Candide's misadventures made my own pale by comparison, and once again had me ruddy with merriment. And the ending was a happy one. When it came I found myself wishing the tale were longer than 120 pages.
In answer to my prayer, destiny dropped the 800-plus page novel Don Quixote into my lap not a month later, and Cervantes' ornate prose wove a spell that transfixed me to the page. I couldn't tear myself away for longer than it took to down a beer, and then I was back to reading. Despite the ridiculous situations he finds himself incessantly in, Quixote himself is one of the most sober characters in fiction, a philosopher through and through. So following his example I drank a little less, though not so little as to lose my precious buzz. After all at fifty plus he was twice my age, and I still had some living to do. There have been other books that have transported me to a world that is so bizarre as to rid my mind of any cares of its own, and to leave me glowing with contentment, not unlike what one feels after some good sex.
The novels of today are about the very mind, preoccupied and obsessive, that I am trying to escape in reading them. So either I can reread these classics, which I almost never do since I'm not one for encores (ask my former sweethearts) or else I can write something as funny and witty myself. Which is no easy task. Cervantes' classic just turned 400 years young, and it has yet to be outdone. Besides, these days my patience only endures for thousand-word bursts, which is where we're at right about now. Until next time, thanks for reading. Or not, as the case may be.