On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

Evgeny Morozov on the Death of the Cyberflâneur

Evgeny Morozov pens a thoughtful piece on the death of the cyberflâneur – a natural consequence of the customized, walled-off, app-and-Like-and-Tweet-button-infested ‘Net that is staring us in the face–no pun intended–as Mark Zuckerberg and his merry band of Facebook buccaneers ride through town, rolling blunts in thousand-dollar bills. (Morozov runs the inevitable risk of turning off those who don’t like invocations of French notions in contemporary commentary but it is one worth taking.)

The cyberflâneur is animated and sustained by serendipity as he travels through and around the ‘Net. He hopes he will stumble upon the new, the unexpected, the not-immediately-contingent-on-the-past through his travels. He puts his trust in the ‘Net’s ‘community’ to generate content that he might like (not Like); he might generate some of his own to throw into the bubbling mix. He is not guided at every single step by their preferences, their recommendations, their idiosyncrasies. Facebook’s most tone-deaf assumption–as revealed in Zuckerberg’s par-for-the-course infantile insistence that we want to go to the movies with our friends–is that what we consume, appreciate and possibly integrate into our preferences is wholly driven by what our contemporaries do. We are creatures of our time indeed, but we are also capable of, and responsible for, our own distinctive paths and patterns of interaction with the culture that surrounds us. The kind of lock-step marching that appears as a not-too-distant consequence of the kind of ‘sharing’ culture Facebook is preparing for us is truly depressing in its grey conformity and its frightening lack of solitude.

If the Zuckerberg-Facebook assumption–that we always want to be guided by our ‘friends’, that we always want to share, and have tastes shared with us–were true, then we would always visit the most crowded attractions in the world and go precisely where the herds go. But we don’t. Even in a museum packed to the rafters on a weekend, we sometimes take a turn into the obscure side-gallery because something has caught our eye, tickled an obscure part of our imagination, tapped into a part of us that we did not know existed till then. We do not know ourselves fully; to explore by ourselves, guided by our own mysterious inclinations can be an entrancing journey of self-discovery. To be constantly guided, prodded, pushed, recommended, into well-worn and commented on paths is dismissive of our potential for reconfiguration.

The ‘Net was supposed to be Borges’ library. It might be that; but it is a library with all its books marked with little stickers telling us who liked what, with its pathways marked with commentary, urging me to add my own so that I may ‘guide’ the others who follow me. This library’s custodians don’t want us browsing the shelves; they want to guide us into small reading rooms where we will meet those with whom we are already familiar.

In this ‘Net, our past determines our future; our essences become fixed quickly as we lock into trajectories determined by our ourselves and our Friends. Talk about existential crises.

I left Facebook more than a year ago, and have not returned. My decision, in many ways, was irrational: as a writer, I cut myself off from a form of advertising that is increasingly crucial in today’s social media world. I still owe myself a post here that explains my rationale for doing so. All in good time.