If no one can focus long enough to read it, no one is going to pay for it. If no one pays for it, no one can write it. That, I believe, is the steady theme of this lovely literary essay that doesn't merely lament the state of our distracted culture. It explores the importance of literature in a manner that Joseph Epstein would applaud.
James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, has only owned a smart phone for the past year. And yet his literary life has radically altered. “Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us,” he tells Nathan Heller in a New Yorkerpiece about the diminishment of English majors in college. “…I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.”
Will readers like us therefore need to become the literary equivalents of the Amish, living peacefully and slightly outside the technological world? Can reading and writing literature become our version of riding in horse-drawn buggies cantering peacefully down a car-jammed highway? Or do we simply need to accept new forms of art, whatever they might be, as when Bibles were first printed by the Gutenberg Press back in 1455, and a new bright vision arose from reading?
The very act of reading literature, the anticommunalism of it, the slow drift into reverie, the immersion into the charismatic black-and-white grids of the page—all of this emphatically unplugs us from that other grid, that beeping, noisome electronic grid that attempts to snare us in a web of reflex, of twitch and spasm. Does this make the pursuit of literature a Luddite maneuver, with all the shadowings of melancholy and futility attendant on such rebellions? I suspect that to the contrary, passionate reading will become a form of permanent opposition…