Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Sparkling pod of snippets"

The WaPo reports that John Updike spoke at BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention that brought roughly 25,000 book people to Washington over the weekend. The assembled throng was still buzzing about Kevin Kelly’s recent NYT Times magazine cover story about the impact of the digital revolution on book publishing, “Steal This Book.” (Times Select archive.) Post reporter Bob Thompson characterizes the battle lines this way.
The clash is between what you might call the technorati and the literati. The technorati are thrilled at the way computers and the Internet are revolutionizing the world of books. The literati fear that, amid the revolutionary fervor, crucial institutions and core values will be guillotined.
Rather than plugging his new novel, “Terrorist,” Updike jumped right in and defended the sharp edges of books against the shape-shifting world without boundaries we call the internet.
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of "information" on the Web, he said, "books traditionally have edges." But "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets.

"So, booksellers," he concluded, "defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."
But I wondered: Is individuality really that clear cut? Are book boundaries really that inviolable?

I forget so much of what I read, even the work of my favorite writers—especially my favorite writers. Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Is this normal, or should I be seeing a neurologist? I used to worry a lot about this.

I became more accepting of my literary amnesia after I happened upon a sly 1970 essay, “My Recollections of Kafka,” by John Fowles, in which no less a literary light than the author of “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” makes what he calls an “appalling confession of ignorance”—that he has forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Kafka and his work, which he had read while at Oxford. “What I think I know well is his spirit, his tone of voice, his coloration (or lack of it), his drift, his one brilliant metaphor,” writes Fowles, and that’s about it.

As an Oxford graduate and former schoolmaster, Fowles may have been gently mocking the academic assumption that the more you can accurately recall of a work of literature, the better. But we don’t have to prove anything to ourselves when we read for pleasure. Outside the classroom and the pages of literary journals, you could almost view literature as the residue that remains after all the details have faded, living on in a kind of twilight zone of the dimly remembered and half forgotten. No sharp edges at all, just a big blur, really.

Updike’s work, perhaps not so coincidentally, figures in an example of this -- rather like the “sparkling pod of snippets’ he talked about over the weekend. It’s Nicholson Baker’s often hilarious and occasionally poignant minor classic, “U & I: A True Story,” a book-length memoir/essay that dissects his love-hate relationship with John Updike and his work, which was what first inspired him to become a writer.

It’s a small comic masterpiece, a self-deprecating look at just how messy the process of engaging with a favorite writer really is. Time after time Baker recalls some favorite passage from Updike, thrilling at the memory of the first time he read it, only to report dutifully to the reader that when he actually went back and checked the passage—if he could even find it, since some passages his unreliable memory seemed to have made up out of whole cloth — it was nothing like his memory of it. His mnemonic perversity doesn’t just distort Updike’s lapidary descriptive passages, but it also subverts entire plot lines. Sometimes, as it turns out, Baker prefers the author’s version, sometimes his own.

Isn’t it precisely this twilight zone of imperfect memory that allows us, as readers, the freedom to bring our own creativity and imagination to the conversation with an author we call reading? And why shouldn't we be able to extend that conversation digitally, just as we extend our musical experience with the iPod?

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