Trapped in the Tower of Babel

The more I’ve worked on the memoir, the less energy I’ve put into this blog. Which makes sense to me. Less clear is why I’ve kept the blog sputtering along on a quarter tank of gas for the last couple of years.

I suppose it’s a combination of motives: stubbornness, of course. Optimism that I might find within myself more energy than I’ve shown. And, worst of all, my grudging acceptance of the conventional wisdom that today all writers (or all artists, or pundits, or fourth-graders) need to maintain a “web presence,” a marketing tool, an idea that wasn’t around over six years ago, when I started this thing.

Back then different motives drove me: the need to start writing again after a long dry spell, the need to document the last couple months of my mother’s life, the desire for approval, and the yearning to connect to what used to feel like an underground community of freaks.

Around the time that people started throwing up blogs featuring nothing but photos of half-naked boys, blogging went from something I loved to do, to something I felt obligated to do. A total snob I sometimes am. Unwilling to pull the plug, however, I need a different motivation.

Over Christmas, in the long lazy hours at my father’s Palm Springs condo, I picked up a copy of Newsweek with a cover story on Amazon’s Kindle– the new digital “reading device.” I belong to the camp that can’t imagine an expensive piece of plastic holding the same allure as a bound book. But I can acknowledge that times change.

But the section of the article that most disturbed me was about the ways in which technology could, or would, change the very nature of reading and writing. The article quoted a guy who heads the Institute for the Future of the Book (paging George Orwell…):

Stein sees larger implications for authors—some of them sobering for traditionalists. “Here’s what I don’t know,” he says. “What happens to the idea of a writer going off to a quiet place, ingesting information and synthesizing that into 300 pages of content that’s uniquely his?” His implication is that that intricate process may go the way of the leather bookmark, as the notion of author as authoritarian figure gives way to a Web 2.0 wisdom-of-the-crowds process. “The idea of authorship will change and become more of a process than a product,” says Ben Vershbow, associate director of the institute.

This is already happening on the Web. Instead of retreating to a cork-lined room to do their work, authors like Chris Anderson, John Battelle (”The Search”) and NYU professor Mitchell Stephens (a book about religious belief, in progress) have written their books with the benefit of feedback and contributions from a community centered on their blogs.

“The possibility of interaction will redefine authorship,” says Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, an association of libraries and institutions. Unlike some writing-in-public advocates, he doesn’t spare the novelists. “Michael Chabon will have to rethink how he writes for this medium,” he says. Brantley envisions wiki-style collaborations where the author, instead of being the sole authority, is a “superuser,” the lead wolf of a creative pack.

An-ever updated book, written by a thousand keyboards. I couldn’t help imagine picking up a copy of Lolita, only to see Nabokov pecked to death by a thousand earnest voices. Not to sound too dramatic (too late, I know) but what a fucking loss that would be.

When I read a book I want to dive down into a world, or a consciousness, and listen to just one voice tell a story. I want to absorb just one person’s insights. I want to stay, listening to that story, and that voice, without interruption, for more than two minutes at a time. The thought of that one voice interrupted by a thousand others disturbs me to no end. But I’m not sure I buy that my preference for one author, and my distrust in the “wisdom of the crowd” means that I’m somehow against democracy.

I suppose this is why I prefer a nice long dinner with one or two friends over the chatter of a cocktail party. A good conversation with one friend makes me inordinately happy; it pulls me out of the gloom of my personal obsessions, the abandoned carnival of my mind, and briefly restores my faith in humanity. As in books, the more time I spend with one person, the better I understand them, and selfishly, myself.

In the month since I turned in my thesis, I’ve lost several days surfing the web, emerging at one or two a.m. feeling irritated and disgruntled. Certain things, like the internet, Playstation 3, and a tub of pudding, feel good in the moment. But they never feel good at the end of the day.

Unlike Philip Roth, who apparently doesn’t own a television, and spends his hours, when not writing, reading and rereading the classics of Literature, writers of my generation grew up with television and the internet. Some of them seem able to balance the twin pulls of literature and popular culture remarkably well. But I’m no good at it. Popular culture, so shiny and bright and sweet, swallows me whole and spits me out later with nothing to show for it but a more well-developed case of cynicism. Books feed me more, but they require more of me, too.

This isn’t so much a declaration of a new motivation for blogging, so much as a reminder to myself of what I’ve been trying to do all along. I don’t want to offer only hyperlinks and jpegs of naked rugby players. Not that I have anything against naked rugby players; I’m sure they’re very nice people, and if you sat down with them over coffee you might glimpse the richness of their inner lives.

But I guess I want to strive for the feel of literature conveyed through this form of pop culture. I’d like to try and offer one voice, one consciousness – flawed, grouchy, and a little too earnest – and hope that every once in a while somebody can relate, and maybe recognize themselves. I guess I want to give back to those writers who kept me company, and to provide a place where other people might leave feeling a little less alone in the world. That, interspersed of course with photos of Manly Fireplugs and my adorable puppy. Too much self-seriousness leads to bloating, and drives people to poke you with sharp sticks.

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