Why Books Are More Important Than Ever
We live in a day and age where the evolution of language and words is driven more by social media than books and novels. As both a Tweeter and a lover of literature old and new, I have mixed feelings about this trend. There is something about the speed of social media which alarms me. Consider this: Edgar Poe, who created the thriller, died broke and without any acclaim, and yet his works are now considered to be masterpieces. Contrast this to the blitzkrieg world of social media where someone who uploads a cat video can become an icon in a single day--or less.
The point I am trying to make is that there is a danger here: A very real danger. Please don't get the idea that I am one of those people, you know the kind that think Facebook and Twitter are the ruination of the world. Because I am not, and I believe that Facebook, Twitter, and social media have many upsides and are, in general, wonderful tools of expression, language, and connectivity. But--like most things--social media has had some unforeseen side effects, side effects which are changing the way we think, the way we speak, and the way we act.
There is a stress to social media, an urgency, that seeps into the language. I mean, when you are racing to be the first person to post or tweet something, you keep it short and simple. And because ur doing this again and again, u start using the same abbreviations again and again and eventually u use the abbreviation all the time and evolution has occurred. But worse than the shortened words, it's the shortened writing structure and thought process that worry me the most, the idea that if it can't be said in 140 characters it isn't worth saying.
As I have stated before, the 140 character limit teaches us to be concise and to the point (and man did I need the help) but there is still plenty of occasion: to be detailed; to expound; to have layers of meaning; to be rich and complex. And that, my friends, is why we need books and novels more than ever. Social media is not going away--nor should it--but it needs a counterbalance. Twitter is fast and immediate; the novel is slow and inexorable. (Can you hear Ruth, my editor, yelling; Not that slow, Peter! Speed it up, Peter!) Twitter is trendy; the novel goes against the grain. Twitter is the preferred medium of the conformist; the contrarian favors the novel.
As a case in point, think about the reaction to the publishing of my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1961. Do you think #ToKillaMockingbird was trending? How many Retweets and Favorites do you think Harper Lee would have scored? But more to the point I am making, do you think she would have cared?
I know what you are thinking; clearly, I have forgotten about the crucial role social media played in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010. Isn't this the same kind of social change that To Kill a Mockingbird created in the United States? But the answer to that question is more chum in the shark-infested waters of social media (Ruth would derive great pleasure from deleting that sentence if she were editing this post! But she's not, so it stays.) Yes, Twitter in particular and social media in general were the catalysts of the Arab Spring, but where is the Arab Spring now???? It goes back to the staying power I alluded to earlier with Poe. Twitter helped ignite the unrest that had been building for years throughout the Arab world, but it happened too quick, before any kind of lasting democratic infrastructure could be thought of, much less built. And so a chill settled over the Arab Spring, a chill that has lasted much longer than the brief warm spell which preceded it.
Let's go back to 1966, and the reaction to #ToKillaMockingbird in Virginia. "Believing its contents to be "immoral," the Hanover County School Board in Virginia decided to remove all copies of Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, from the county's school libraries." I picked this one example--of many--because it makes several points for me (and isn't that why everybody loves quotes?) For one, five years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, people were not only still talking about the novel they were filing law suits to remove it from libraries. The depth and complexity of novels lends them to slow and thoughtful digest, which in turn leads to lasting and meaningful change. Like Twitter and the Arab Spring, To Kill a Mockingbird was a catalyst for change in the Deep South, but in this case the change--though slower in coming--was enduring. The novel, at it's best, is timeless and enduring--and we need more of that in this age of transience.
There has never been a better vehicle for the contrarian than the novel. Without doubt, the contrarian can tweet, but what traction can be gained from a media that is based on trends and popularity? And we need the contrarian, now, more than ever. Don't think so? What about Global Warning, the rise of domestic terrorism, a resurgent and cantankerous Russia, our failing public schools, the healthcare crisis? But I don't mean to pick on Twitter (and make sure to follow me at @phogenkampVT). I mean to remind people of the importance of the novel, of non-fiction, of long form journalism, of poetry, and of anything with depth and complexity in this day and age of info-bytes, quick take-home points, and all other things that are superficial and ultra-simplified.
Why does it matter? I worry that our national attention span has grown so short that we can't focus long enough to even identify--much less address--the pressing issues of our times. Jimmy Carter warned of a "health care crisis" in 1976, and yet forty-five years later we are closer than ever before to a complete dissolution of our health-care system. And I realize that there are other factors--partisan politics and the rise of lobbyism in particular--at play here, but don't discount the effect of our national attention deficit disorder either. In 2014 we face problems that are deeper and more complex than any encountered in the preceding two millennia; it's time we train ourselves to meet these problems.
Am I saying that sitting down to The Kite Runner is the best way to resolve Global Warming, that cracking open Cold Mountain will lead to better schools? Yes, that's what I am saying. (Heh, I am Jesuit-educated, what did you expect?)
The problem, of course, is that it's a lot easier to whip off a quick tweet about the #goldenglobes than it is to construct a 500,000 character work that is deep and rich and complex and permanent.
But it has never been more important.