So I had this idea.
I was reading an article I printed out from Drudge about how the newspapers were dying because nobody was reading them anymore. This was during a break in my own work wherein I bemoan (as in piss and bemoan) the passing of the book and the end of civilization. Earlier I had Googled up statistics on reading and found yet another tombstone statement about how the average American consumes less than a book a year. I wiped my word weary eyes and complained out loud to myself, “Self. You used to read a couple of books a week. Now you read little more than a book a month. Ain’t you part of the problem?”
I don’t take criticism quietly. People say I’m a little defensive. I take the slight and tell myself there is nothing little about it. I replied, “Sure you did. And a newspaper for breakfast as well.”
“Liar!” I protested. “You never read the whole newspaper. You skimmed. And I’ll bet you skipped the boring bits of those books too.”
“Oh, but no, no, newsprint-breath.” I retorted in my best imitation of Ed McMahon, “If a book didn’t hold its own in chapter one or two, I would quit and start another. I learned as an adolescent, that it only counts when you go all the way. When I did read a book, I read it through. But you are correct, sir, about the newspapers. They never really were good enough all the way from the front page headline to the classifieds.”
(Perhaps my problem is this: because only one in ten readers today even knows who Ed McMahon is, it bespeaks of my age even more than my reading habits to bring him into this monologue.) I read poetry everyday. I read parts of books for background reference. I read thousands of words on the screen and I print out from twenty to forty pages of material every day from the web. About 150 pages a week at least. I read pretty much all of this. I chose it, after all. It meets my exact intellectual need of the moment. And it more than replaces the newspapers and books I once read—it surpasses them. I get more excellent writing on a greater range of subject, and I get it when and where I want it.
I said, “So what’s the problem?’
Not so funny I should ask.
Mr. John Donne, a great writer who is practically if not virtually unread today, offered one line which most people know. The one about islands and men. If I read just what I want—that self-selected cream of the literary crop—I have isolated my own intellect in a very crucial way. I know more and more about less and less. I can thus become a brain surgeon specializing in very small brains. Good for mice, but not for men.
The great ‘liberal education’ of Charles Eliot (Charles who? Was he George’s older sister?) was a five foot shelf of the literature which had made Western Civilization what it was. For those who do not respect Western Civilization because of what John Wayne did to it afterward, I would suggest you are a nincompoop (a wonderful word, indeed). But what Eliot understood was that Western Civilization was not a finished work but an ongoing process–less than two and a half thousand years set against a couple of hundred thousand. He knew that our ignorance exceeds our grasp, but we had better reach for that non sequitur quick, because the lion does not sleep tonight. All of that. Only he would not have said it quite that way.
And while Irish immigrants and Minnesota farm boys were dying to end slavery in America (Yes. That was what it was about. Idiot! Don’t start that states rights argument again.) more than three quarters of the world’s population still lived in slavery from Brazil to Russia. Does anybody processed by the American public education system know that? Or would they even care?
Half the population of the world still lives in virtual slavery to this day–that is ‘virtual’ as in, “Eat your rice and shut up. Don’t make a lot of noise or we’ll rape you again. You were supposed to sew two pockets on four hundred dresses today, not four pockets on two hundred dresses. You can eat when you have finished hauling that salt out of that hole of mine.” That kind of virtual. Not the glassy cool of a plasma screen ‘virtual.’
I do not wish for a government edict. Nantes to that. What I suggest is that it’s up to you. No, I mean you. Right. You either give a goddamn or you don’t. If you don’t, why the hell are you reading this? There must be a cgi effect you missed in that last film adaptation of the greatest works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. If you give a goddamn, you have to read. It doesn’t matter the medium unless you need a massage in which case I suggest you avoid the newspaper classifieds. You need to read broadly and Greatly. You need to read to save your life.
The newspaper can save itself. The New York Times could downsize to the equivalent of the New York Sun back when Francis Pharcellus Church told Virginia O’Hanlon that “love and generosity and devotion” still existed. (And I’m talking about the number of pages, not the size of the pages, you dope.) A smaller newspaper would cost less, and use its editorial expertise to cull the known world for what was really ‘news’ and not just sensation. Britney and Paris would not make the cut. People who think they have the time for sluts do not buy newspapers. The Vietnamese grocer in the Bronx who is standing up to the gang bangers would be there. Small business owners read newspapers, gang bangers do not. The Senator making excuses for why he is not responsible for the votes he made in Congress would get no space for his poppycock, but a factual analysis of the damage of that Senator’s votes to property values in Staten Island would. Property owners read newspapers, and the Senator will only read a newspaper that has him by the throat. And for broader analysis, the paper would index on-line sources and its own website.
Etcetera. A regular newspaper reader of average interest and intelligence could tell Pinch, the old gray lady’s current keeper, more about how to save his rag than a hundred self-important editorial minions. But Pinch won’t ask. He’ll sell short. The New York Times is already yesterday’s news because it has no clue how to compete with the internet and it has no reason to exist beyond the next stock holders meeting. Pinch does not believe in the power of ‘love and generosity and devotion,’ and were he to judge, would have thrown Edmund Gwenn out of the court.
I’m that old. Maureen O’Hara is still my idea of a woman. I must believe in miracles because I believe books will survive. Little screens just can’t cut the aesthetic mustard (or mix a good metaphor). But even when they can, (and I understand they will some day) books will still survive because they are the unfungible, untampered and untempered record of a still vital and growing culture.
So I have this idea. What if they threw an ‘end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it’ party and nobody came? What would my hero be doing at the time?