Lessing’s “curmudgeonly missteps” should be forgiven. Close the book and open the internet.

Jeff Gomez over at the Print is Dead blog has the best piece I’ve read so far about Nobel prize winner Doris Lessing’s mild attack on the internet.    Lessing’s comments were buried in an otherwise inspiring story about the power of reading, knowledge, and education – a story about how some women in Africa were more concerned about having books to read than food to eat.

Lessing’s suggestion that youth is in the process of abandoning quality book reading in favor of the ‘inaninties” of the internet brought the very predictable blogOspheric response of derision heaped on an old litererary lady who deserves a lot more respect than she’s been getting.

Like Jeff, I can quickly forgive the increasingly irrelevant attacks on the internet.    In fact I agree with Lessing that we’ve lost something as people flock to the internet while abandonining books and newspapers, carrying with them little more than a keyboard and a short attention span.    But we gain something as well.   Something very profound.   The internet is not only far more engaging than books and newspapers, and the internet is not only far more accessible than books and newspapers.   The internet is interactive.  

VERY interactive.   

For the first time in all of human history, people from almost anywhere can communicate night and day, every day, with other people from almost anywhere else.    This tidal wave of human socializing has only just begun and the implications are staggering.   Complaining that books aren’t getting their due respect, while true, is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.   The ship of knowledge known as the internet sailed long ago and is now a huge fleet carrying billions of people.     

As a Nobel prize winner for literature Doris Lessing will be remembered forever.    And rightly so.   But those memories, and photos, and videos, and copies of what she said will live forever in *digital form*.  They’ll live on the internet, long after all the paper representations have been relegated to a handful of dusty old museum archives and rich book collector’s shelves.

And that, dear Doris, is a very good thing.

3 thoughts on “Lessing’s “curmudgeonly missteps” should be forgiven. Close the book and open the internet.

  1. I actually agree with Miss Lessing in part. The Net has resulted in a great deal of syntactical noise. Yes, the interactive capabilities of the internet are impressive, and blogs and websites do provide useful information beyond what traditional newspapers, magazines, or books and novels offer. Simply being able to point and click and make a few rude comments at homie.com does not a William Gibson make, however.

    The “Great tradition” that Lessing alludes to poses another problem. Cyber-writers should not be expected to have memorized Pride and Prejudice— or the latest developments in string theory—but writing skills do seem to be lacking. Techspeak may suffice in many environments, but engineers and technologists, at least ones who want to write something that will interest on-line readers, could do with a few months reviewing some prose-models.

    CP Snow wrote on this topic decades ago in his “Two Cultures” essay. He lamented the gap between the literary and scientific camps. Thomas Pynchon–someone who has bridged that gap at least to some extent–agrees with Snow, in part (his essay on CP Snow and “Luddites” is online). Snow’s Two Culture’s thesis remains an issue in many academic contexts: the literary and political people often detest techies, call them reductionists or cold, robotic, etc., while the scientists and engineers predictably view the lit. or political types as irrational, emotional, given to great generalizations, etc. Logic itself is sort of a dirty word among many leftist literary people. Yet as a Pynchon (or CP Snow, or Bertrand Russell, SJ Gould to some extent) indicates one can bridge the gap, at least with some work: mastering compound nouns in German, or finishing Ulysses, may pose nearly as many difficulties as multivariate calculus.

    That said, Americans as a rule generally lack language skills, even in English. Most bright european students (and citizens) well know their Mutterzunge and then French, latin, English in addition to that (and in addition to the math/science curriculum). Few Americans will master a second language (and it is not such a trivial task); perusing the colloquial barks and bleats of political sites and blogs, one wonders whether they have mastered a five-paragraph essay with a clearly-defined thesis.

  2. Really interesting comment Horatiox, and I agree with much of what you wrote. I probably exaggerated the positive above partly because my view is that the almost all the internet changes we are seeing are very profoundly inevitable. Thus I’d prefer to see luminaries like Lessing help improve the quality of the digital transition rather than just jousting at the windmills of change.

  3. Danke. Rereading it, the post may sound a bit more snooty and pro-Lessing than I wanted it to. If blogs were all like Joe Duck–or even Slate (which I think is underrated, though they have corporatized it a bit)–I would be in agreement with you: I think blogs could have an impact on pro-journalism, and maybe will take down the newspaper biz, eventually. And books and texts can be archived online, obviously (so who really cares about the texts). Big urban papers could do with some retro-fitting (like firing most in the schports departments). Who gets to participate, however–? Do we need PhDs in communication studies from USC ? Nearly seems so. Why not Joe Duck instead of Debbie Saunders? Or Bruce Sterling instead of Annie Coulter.,etc. Sort of becomes another problem of consumerism, management, even division of labor. So people are mostly free to scribble whatever they want on blogs—literature, political theories, environmentalism, readings of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, etc. etc.–but that hardly means their magnum hopeless will be read.

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