On cultural pessimism (updated)

will this sentence ever end?I have enjoyed many books by novelist and essayist Tim Parks (the novel Europa my favorite). But I can’t agree with him in his latest piece in the New York Review of Books. He laments that in our busy lives, we don’t have time to absorb great, complex works of literature:

Only yesterday a smart young Ph.D. student told me his supreme goal was to keep himself from checking his email more than once an hour, though he doubted he would achieve such iron discipline in the near future. At present it was more like every five to ten minutes. So when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex. …

[H]ere is Dickens in a single sentence in Our Mutual Friend:

“Having found out the clue to that great mystery how people can contrive to live beyond their means, and having over-jobbed his jobberies as legislator deputed to the Universe by the pure electors of Pocket-Breaches, it shall come to pass next week that Veneering will accept the Chiltern Hundreds, that the legal gentleman in Britannia’s confidence will again accept the Pocket-Breaches Thousands, and that the Veneerings will retire to Calais, there to live on Mrs Veneering’s diamonds (in which Mr Veneering, as a good husband, has from time to time invested considerable sums), and to relate to Neptune and others, how that, before Veneering retired from Parliament, the House of Commons was composed of himself and the six hundred and fifty-seven dearest and oldest friends he had in the world.”

The passage comes toward the end of this eight-hundred-page novel. All kinds of previous references have to be kept in mind and some knowledge of the English parliamentary system and the jargon of the time is essential. Dickens is a world to immerse yourself in for periods of not less than half an hour, otherwise the mind will struggle to accustom itself to the aura of it all and the constant shift between different voices and rhetorical ploys.

But, as I’m sure Parks knows, those who read Our Mutual Friend when it was first published had to do so by reading short, monthly excerpts published over a period of a year and a half. If readers in the 1860s could keep straight in their minds from month to month Veneering’s relationship with his fellow members of Parliament, surely we can too, even though we have to keep up with our email.

The world is different than it used to be, and so is how we consume culture. When I took my first academic post, there was no internet, email, or desktop computers – we checked the post for mail, and walked to the library to find books and journals. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking cultural life was richer then, as we recall favorite books or records or reading rooms from the time fondly, and curse our current overbooked lives. It is possible to daydream about an imaginary time when we had the leisure to read a few hundred pages of Dickens in a sitting.

A real danger is that some go a step further and believe that younger people today are not capable of such rich cultural lives, that they have “the attention spans of mice“, that they have “an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.” Parks continues:

I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, and coercive, declamatory rhetoric to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable.

But on what grounds? It’s not my experience with contemporary literary fiction.

The students I teach are mostly (though not exclusively) twenty-somethings. They don’t have the same cultural references I do, and it would be silly for me to lament that. My cultural life when I was their age was different. But I don’t want to jump to the conclusion my cultural life at that age was better, that I read better books and listened to better music.  My students read books – different ones than I do, usually –  go to museums and concerts, and appreciate complexity in art. They – all of us – have more, and more affordable, access to great literature, music, film, theatre and visual art than any generation before. For all the things that might be wrong in our world there is at least that to celebrate. Some cultural optimism, please.

UPDATE: An interesting collection of responses to the Tim Parks article, from The Guardian.

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  1. I think people today, both young and old, in almost all forms of narrative, expect crisper, faster moving, episodic formats. It’s not a matter of an inability for sustained concentration, but rather an aesthetic view that is culturally isomorphic with film and video — the dominate art forms of our time. Art creates concepts of time. The faster the medium, the faster the forms of time it embodies.

    We can thus follow the jagged montage and flashbacks of a film like Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmin” because they are conventions we have learned to read. Such abrupt, fast-paced, episodic forms were rare in the 19th century because it wasn’t natural to their mediums. Our fast forms would seem as odd to them as some of their long narratives seem strange to us today — like operas that last 4 or 5 hours.

    Much more could be said about this, about how digital technology has tied us so closely together, how news travels fast in tribes, how young people on campus walk down the sidewalks thumbing their cell phones. Art forms like classical music have done a poor job of keeping up with these new concepts of time and tribalism.

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  3. Yes, Our Mutual Friend was published as a serial. But it was published chapter by chapter, and I rather suspect that people sat down and read the chapter in one go, and then passed it on to another family member (or read it aloud), so that they did have a concentrated immersion in the novel. That is different from reading for a few minutes here and there. But it’s also true, that the opportunities for uninterrupted reading seem to be fewer and fewer. Yet as I recall, as a kid, one of the interruptions was television. This was well before the DVR or TIVO, and if you wanted to see something, you dropped what you were reading (or doing) and sat down in front of the TV for an hour and a half. And the networks always managed to program two or three things you’d want to see at the same time (of course), so you never got to see all of them (as you can today).

    People today do do things in a concentrated way.. How many people are glued to their sets for hours at a time watching the World Cup, or the Olympics, or the endless choice of football games and other sports on TV? (They even go to games.) They may not want to spend 3 hours in a theater or 5 hours at the opera (plus the expense) but they are willing to sit in one spot for hours at a time, focused on one event.

    The people who have the patience to read Proust or Dostoyevsky or The Tale of Genji have always been few, and I suspect, and hope, that those people will still find time for the works they want to read, whatever else is going on around them.