Tuesday, December 26, 2017

`A Few Old Men May Visit from Time to Time'

“. . . the Internet is not about serious writing, but instead is mainly about information. Is there something about reading on a screen rather than on paper that causes one to all but pass over style? Has it to do with the mystery of pixels? Is solving this mystery a job for the quasi-fake science of brain studies? The Internet, in any case, needs a Marshall McLuhan, one a good bit smarter and more lucid than the original.”

In theory, what’s written and published online ought to be indistinguishable from work produced through more traditional means – another naïve delusion. The digital realm has empowered the ungifted. To be a writer all you need are an internet connection and a gripe, coherence and wit optional. Reading most blogs is like watching a toddler rebuild a carburetor. Style is writing.

The stylist cited above is Joseph Epstein, co-author, with Frederic Raphael, of Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017), a sequel to Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013). It’s one of the two books I received as Christmas presents, the other being 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016) by Dana Gioia.

Reading the ongoing Epstein/Raphael email exchange reminds us how close to gossip literature often comes. Think Pepys, Duc de Saint-Simon, Henry James and Proust. (See Epstein’s Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, 2011), Here is the gossip-enriched paragraph from Epstein that follows the one quoted above:

“The problem for literature is that it is about all that is beyond mere information—beyond all this fiddle, to glom a title from one of the books of A. Alvarez, whom Philip Larkin used to refer to as El Al. But will we soon have a readership trained only to read for the facts, allowing thoughtfulness, penetration, style to pass unnoticed? Will they, before much longer, fail to grasp what the real thing, literature, looks like?”

Too late. Gioia writes in “The Silence of the Poets”:

“The old books, those the young have not defaced,
are still kept somewhere,
stacked in their dusty rows.

“And a few old men may visit from time to time
to run their hands across the spines
and reminisce,
but no one ever comes to read
or would know how.”

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