Pixel v. Print and Five Hard Novels

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I ran across perhaps the most-enjoyable Medium.com pieces of the past few months: Five Insanely Difficult Novels (and Why They’re Worth the Effort).

It, for me, is perhaps the quintessential online essay.

I agree with Joseph Epstein that there is something fundamentally different between reading print and reading pixels.

“One reads pixels, as they are chiefly meant to be read, quickly, skimmingly, chiefly for information.” There is something “insubstantial, ephemeral, impermanent about writing that appears in pixels.”

The print essay entails an element of “gradualness.” It develops points over the course of pages and numerous paragraphs, even putting as many as a half-dozen sentences into a paragraph (each of which, in classical prose, ought to be a self-contained mini-essay). It’s elegant, both in its deliberateness and the respect it shows the reader, whom the essayist assumes is sophisticated enough to stay with a long train of thought

The online essay is none of that.

It’s short, fast-paced, and packed.

Epstein clearly holds the pixel essay in lower regard than the print essay. I guess I do, too, but I’m not sure it’s useful or even fair to compare the two. I think they’re entirely different art forms. It’s kind of like arguing about whether Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky is the better athlete. It’s not a totally inapt argument, but two sports are so entirely different, I’m not sure it’s useful or even fair to compare the two sports preeminent athletes.

I kind of look at pixel writing and print writing like I do frozen pizzas and restaurant pizzas. Restaurant pizzas are better than frozen, but it’s not useful or fair to compare them. They fill different culinary purposes and they’re entirely different food forms.


Anywaaaaaay, the “Five Insanely Difficult Novels” essay is, I think, the poster boy for how good a pixel essay can be within its own art genre.

And if you’re curious, here are the five insanely difficult novels, along with the writer’s summary of each:

Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

“24 hours in the life of Leopold Bloom, an average joe in Dublin, 16th June 1904.”

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

“A fatally entertaining video (literally so good you’ll die watching) connects the residents of a Boston halfway house and an elite tennis academy.”

I’ve been fascinated by David Foster Wallace for a few years now. He seems to be broadly considered a first-rate literary genius  . . . a tortured one, even (he converted to Christianity, but the demons eventually got to him and he committed suicide).

I’m tempted to get that novel, if for no other reason this description of its foonotes:

“DFW’s masterpiece clocks in at 1100 pages and the last 100 are endnotes — some of which have their own footnotes.”

That both cracks me up and intrigues me at the same time

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (1973)

“Various characters try to uncover the secrets of a peculiar V2 missile in WW2 Europe.”

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924)

“A young man visits his sick cousin in a mountain sanatorium — and ends up staying for seven years.”

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)

“An unlikeable old man is murdered, and his equally unlikeable sons weigh up their respective levels of guilt.”