I’ve read it more than once that for David Foster Wallace, whose work I admire tremendously, and for Jonathan Franzen, whose work I also admire tremendously, fiction was/is (Franzen said in an elegy to Wallace) “‘A way out of loneliness’ was the formulation we agreed to agree on.” Since the first time I heard that idea, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about it, specifically if it were true for me. If I write and read fiction as a way out of loneliness.
I don’t think so.
Many years ago, when my daughter Jackie was in about fourth or fifth grade, she and her teacher invited me to come and talk about writing fiction. I asked the extremely polite young people if anyone knew what virtual reality was. Most did. I told them that I thought books, especially fiction, were the original virtual reality. That you could immerse yourself in a book and be suddenly in the past, in the future, on a spaceship or a pirate ship. On a hot day you could be shivering because the scene you were reading took place on a frigid, snowy day.
Long before I was ever a (real) fiction writer, I desperately wanted to be a photographer. But I was more fascinated by the darkroom than by the technique of making a good photograph, which may have been because I am a) fascinated by how things work, and b) way less visually oriented and way more oriented toward language. I have been told more than once that my writing is very visual – and editor once told me that I could put a reader in a place better than any writer she knew. What I discovered was that the evanescent moment that I was trying to capture on Tri-X Pan or Kodachrome was missing most of the dimensions I felt were most important. So a romantic picnic with friends by a lakeside became snapshots in my photography, while in my writing I could capture the scent of wine and sweat, the way the sunlight and shadow, the silvery, irregular reflections of the water’s surface worked on faces, the feel of grass on your face when you rolled off the blanket.
It wasn’t about loneliness, or not the way I would define it. I was and is about taking some moment in time and capturing it in the amber of narrative.
I have found that it’s often the case – even with me – that if you ask someone about a book they read, they will be able to tell you just about everything but the author’s name. It’s almost as though the library were a jukebox and each volume in it were a song, and it didn’t really matter who wrote or performed the song, so long as the music affected you.
I agree with Franzen and Wallace that the human connection is utterly crucial but not because of loneliness. But he recently said something (what is it about Franzen that he seems to have pissed so many people off [a good thing in my view] that it’s almost as though he’s wearing a permanent “kick-me” sign?) that I really connected with. The context was what has been described as a tirade against ebooks (more here). The thing he said, though: “I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” is utterly true for me.
I remember my teacher, Richard Bausch, years ago, saying something about the permanence of fiction. Tolstoy is dead but Anna will always be throwing herself on the tracks. Nick will always be getting ready to meet Gatsby.
In this sense of permanence, I don’t necessarily see any real connection to paper. Yes, I get it that Amazon can, it seems, replace a typo-ridden copy of Reamde that you’ve annotated and your annotations will disappear with the typos. But I think also that there are benefits to the cloud and to the ereader.
Many years ago, I went to pick my daughter Julia up at Dulles Airport. Her flight was supposed to be in at around 7:30 or so, but this was summer and there were thunderstorms and the flight was delayed – the airport was shut down. It was far enough from my house that it was easy enough to decide to forget going home and just wait. I found an airport bookstore and bought a thriller. The store was more of a news stand and the selection was not exactly exhaustive.
The thriller turned out to be pretty good. And good thing, too, because the delays continued. We didn’t get home until about 2 in the morning. But what if it were a tiny little airport with no news stands? What if I had got there after the news stands were closed?
With an ereader – I have an iPad – I could have had the library of the world at my fingertips and could have started reading in no time – Gatsby, or Anna Karenin or whatever.
I don’t mean to suggest that the electronic experience necessarily replaces the experience of the physical book. I like that sense of permanence – of remembering, spatially, that a particular quote was about a third of the way through the novel, the left hand page, two paragraphs down on a page that began with two short-ish paragraphs.
But I’ve always thought that one of the beauties of literature as art (one of many) is its infinite reproducibility. There is one Mona Lisa. You cannot own it. You can buy a reproduction, but it’s just that. There is one Anna Karenin, or Karenina if you prefer (and maybe this is a crappy example because I can’t read it in anything but translation), and anyone can own it. The reproduction (aside from being in translation) is the exact work of art.
I grew up reading physical books. My jeans in high school had the outlines of paperbacks on the back pocket opposite my wallet, just as the back pockets of other guys had the round outlines of snuff cans.
But if it is true that the permanence of a work of fiction is in the words, and in its infinite reproducibility, does it make that much difference if it’s on a screen and not a piece of paper?
What would we have today if the storied Library of Alexandria had been in the cloud?
Permanence. It’s only important in that we are permanent. Shakespeare had it right:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.