Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


100 posts later


What's left of the turkey will last another week or so--I love turkey sandwiches. But the holiday is over, and I'm coming around the last turn for the semester. I'm bushed. My students are too. If they're not just plain tired, they're tired of it--of school. To be truthful, so am I.

I started this blogging thing somewhere mid-August already, at the outset of a semester I knew would be my busiest in years. I wanted to write something every morning--or at least every day--just to keep myself thinking through ideas, remembering stuff I experienced or heard, recording joys and concerns.

I didn't know then what a blog is, and I'm not sure I do today either, 100 posts later. Who really gives a hang what I write here? Oddly enough, some people do. Some people leave notes. Some send e-mails. It's an interesting medium, and it's been a good exercise for me, like a stationary bike. For more than 100 days now, I've been filling up this little white box patently insatiable. I could probably use an editor. Most of us could.

Just a week ago or so ago, Matthew Kirschenbaum, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, thoughtfully critiqued a research study done by the National Endowment of the Arts a few years ago, a study they called "Reading at Risk." When I read it back then, that study seemed to me to be a kind of Jeremiad from people like me, professionals.

For better or worse, I'm a professional; I'm in the reading business. I teach literature and writing, and write books (and blogs) myself, and I see first hand what the NEA study asserted--reading does seem to be at risk. What's painfully clear to me, after nearly four decades of teaching, is that students don't read as often as they once did; hence, they don't read as well. Because reading is a harder chore than it once was--or at least sustained reading is a harder chore--it's tougher, today, to teach "literature."

By enclosing that word in quotes, I'm conceding to the age, however. By thinking of "literature" as a peculiar and particular genre of what we might call "reading." It is. It's hard for me to admit that, but it's true. I cut my teeth on literature. When I first felt the hankering to write, it was--plain and simple--because I thought of writers as prophets and seers and holy men (and sometimes women). I may have been somewhat delusional in those days, but I honestly thought of "the writer" as someone with laser-like perception, someone who could and did give shape to culture.

But I've come to believe--and it's painful to admit--that that view of "the writer" is an artifact. In the information age, everyone is a writer.

Kirschenbaum says--and I think he's right--that the visual image both used and imagined by the NEA report (it's own still photos in the report) show kids with a book in corners. That's the model of "literature'--someone stepping out of their ordinary workaday job to curl up on a couch with a novel. Kirschenbaum admits that in today's world there is less of that than there was. On that score, he agrees with the NEA.

But he also points out that the new media is prompting us to read in new and different ways. Listen to this: "The report also fails to acknowledge the extent to which reading and writing have become commingled in electronic venues." I think he's right. Some examples? "The staccato rhythms of a real-time chat session are emblematic in this regard: Reading and writing all but collapse into a single unified activity. But there is a spectrum of writing online, just as there is a spectrum of reading, and more and more applications blur the line between the two."

The claim that we don't read as much as we used to seems speculative, given this marvelous machine in my basement and your office or study or even family room. That we don't read in the ways we used to--that argument, to me at least, has more currency. And with every last character to emerge from the white space just ahead of the last one on this screen before me, I am a part of that world.

I read somewhere recently that a new website is altering the sleazy business of pornography. This new site is modeled after You Tube, and it allows people to post their own bedroom shenanigans. This is not a commercial, but I find it sort of sweet that long-time pornographers are being put out of business by the democratic character of the Internet. With the world wide web, anyone who wants to be can be a pornographer, just as anyone who wants to be can be a writer. Or reader, for that matter. And most of us are.

A hundred posts in, I don't claim, still, to understand what a blog is, what a post is, what communication is, what writing is in this brand new age.

What I do know is that, for me at least, it's been a good exercise, like keeping a journal, but not really that either. There are things I'd never say in this medium, just as there are things I just last week edited out of a book of meditations I sent off to a publisher. So often, the exercise of blogging seems incredibly, even embarrassingly narcissistic--an emblem of our age, just me going on and on and on.

But then listen to Thoreau: "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference." Feels narcissistic to me. "We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking." True enough. "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience." Of course, you must remember this is the man who said he's traveled far in Concord. His tongue is placed firmly in his cheek. And this too: "Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives. . ."

Thoreau would have been a blogger--I'm sure of it. If he had a computer. How on earth could he have gotten the shack at Walden wired?

I'm looking back. It's been a joy to be a part of this new world for a semester. I don't know if I'll keep it up or not. My man Henry David even referred to his two years in the woods as an "excursion." He didn't mean to stay.

But it is exciting being part of the immense revolution that this computer is creating in the world. It's clear to me that my students don't read "literature" as well as they used to, nor do they regard it as important. There's so much of it around, so much of it at our fingertips, so much of it all over in this Information Age.

Not long ago, in a presentation I was giving about Generation Y, a retiring high school principal asked me--with deep sincerity--if the changes various studies had noted in our students were changes we, in the education business, would have to adjust to. He asked the question as if it were a burden. "Shouldn't we fight those changes?" he said.

"No," I told him. "We'll have to change." I don't think it was the answer he wanted me to give.

How we'll change isn't at all clear. People at the NY Times and Washington Post now both predict a time when there will be no more paper editions of those great national institutions. It's all going to be on-line.

Today, everything in communication--from the Post to pornography is up for grabs.

Ain't we got fun.

Well I am anyway--having fun, that is, 100 posts into my very first blog.

4 comments:

GOGEJANR said...

I have started to read your sketch … interestingly … your thinking to me is familiar … always will be inflated people which with interest I will read such things … will continue to read as a smog … I read the help of "PROMT" Janri Gogeshvili the Georgian author

Real Live Preacher said...

congratulations. I agree with much of what you've said. Well, I can't think of anything I disagree with. The changes are real and there is nothing you can do about it. The social inertia of this is massive.

But it doesn't mean that literature is going away. It will be here and though there may be statistically less people reading it, there are still a lot of us.

Satchel Pooch said...

Congratulations on the centennial post!

I'm tremendously amused by the thought of Thoreau as blogger. Wouldn't he have stirred up some stuff?

Stefan said...

Good Job! :)