canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times

Edited by Kevin Smokler
Basic Books, 2005

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

Editor Kevin Smokler explains in his introduction to Bookmark Now that the voices behind these essays were encouraged as a response to Reading at Risk, a National Endowment for the Arts report that warned literary reading is in sharp decline in favour of the internet, TV and video games. Responses were swift and alarmed, but not often complex or useful: literary types should regroup and push on with the idea of convincing people to read, as though itís an unpleasant pill to swallow. I admit itís hard to think of ways to sell reading to non-readers. And daily life can be discouraging, even without gloomy media blurbs. I work in an office where a few hundred people pass through every day, and at the end of the day I can count on one hand the number of people who waited with a book rather than an electronic device. As a writer, this has the advantage of keeping you humble and connected with the real world, and the disadvantage of feeling you love to do something increasingly obscure. Announcing at a party that youíre a poet would get the same reaction as announcing youíre fond of researching Viking rituals. So, writers need dialogue and reassurance in times of change, or even the best of times. Smokler suggests itís only a traditional approach that leaves us upset: "If online reading was eating away at book reading, how did we explain literary weblogs that command thousands of readers a day, or book recommendations and dialogue as crucial features in the next generations of social software?"

The majority of essays here are thoughtful and articulate, if seemingly arbitrary in terms of what aspect of the literary life they approach. Adam Johnson notes, "the key to learning is a repository of humility, and it is for posturing against this that I most fault the myths of being an artist." Paul Collins writes an account of being unexpectedly moved in a library during research: "By the late 1870s, though, I noticed the writing getting shakier and less frequent until, one day, it stopped altogetherÖ I pulled my Walkman headphones off and sat there a moment. The volumes sat on my desk, mute, and I looked up from them, through the library windows, and at the clouds drifting by. I realized that my silent companion had died. And Ė absurdly, I know Ė I felt a little pang, even though I never knew his name, and he died a hundred years before I was born." Here we find something wrapped up in the dreams of any writer: to move someone a hundred years after death. Benjamin Nugent questions our tendency to push workloads to the breaking point, warning "itís a trend that works to deprive us of the poem by the doctor about her patients, the novel by the judge about the defendant."

A few writers wander away from the point, into territory thatís more personal and less relevant. Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith take turns writing each other in a piece that finally resonates most strongly with their dedication to the relationship. This is all perfectly admirable, but not terribly useful for the rest of us. And the exchange threatens to exclude the reader, complete with a "fuck you" for a particular kind of question about competitiveness between them.

Finally, the essays of Tom Bissell and Douglas Rushkoff are right on topic in addressing literacy in a changing world. "Human culture keeps producing newer and technologically cannier things with which to distract itself," notes Bissell, and we may be creating "a culture literally afraid of interiority." Clearly, some do leap to create the technological umbilical cord, preferring cell phones to being alone with thoughts. Bissell stops short of suggesting cultural changes, only observing "love of digital distraction needs fortification with something that appreciates and rewards the inner life." But how do you teach people to appreciate that inner life when theyíre afraid of it? For every skilled poet, there are a few heavily financed teams of advertisers. In a reassuring set of observations, Rushkoff shows how our fears can be short sighted: he compares a publisherís refusal to release free electronic versions of books to record executives in the 1930s who forbade radio stations use of recordings out of fear theyíd lose sales. And he notes that digital media wonít completely replace the book, because "a new medium only replaces an old one if it does everything better." The VHS cassette didnít put theatres out of business but enhanced what we like about them, and reminded us why we go, "giant screens, THX sound, glamorous lobbies, and an evening out of the house." You canít take your digital media into the bath, or snuggle up with it properly, and anything you really cherish youíd want on paper, which does support his argument that some would read a few chapters of a book online and then go out and buy it.

There is optimism inherent in these dedicated voices, and humour. Literature isnít a precious, endangered species here. Reading the book is like having a few pints with these writers, spending time with like-minded folks and hearing about why they love what they do, and find it fascinating. Tara Bray Smith communicates the pleasure of reading so warmly I wanted to invite her to dinner just to hang out. Neal Pollack tells of an exchange that began with him receiving an anonymous email that read, in its entirety, "Neal Pollack is a dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick dick licker." Howard Hunt reveals a delightful line he read and has carried for years, describing the experience of interviewing Christopher Walken: "Fiddling with his lemons, he seems to repel conversation." And regardless of how directly they tackle the issue of a decline in literary reading, these pieces speak to the issue just by existing, written by articulate, passionate and relatively young writers who all felt the power and gravity of writing despite other distractions. Do these essays settle the matter? No, but itís more important to begin the matter. The book may not be strong on tangible suggestions for change, but Smokler wisely recognizes it would have been fairly ironic for a book tackling this subject to be dull and preachy. Itís more important to stop for a deep breath first and recognize that the end is not nigh. We may not know what reading will compete with next, or how its weird marriage to technology will turn out, but itís reassuring to hear from these voices that give a damn.

Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer.







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