The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

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A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel

If you’d asked me last December about the shape of the year to come, in books or in broader strokes, I couldn’t have begun to predict it. In fact, you did ask me -- or rather, The Millions did: my last “Year in Reading,” which I wrote towards end of my first term of a master’s degree, made pretty specific predictions about the months to come: I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. Yeah...almost. To be fair, I did spend a good portion of 2014 completing coursework, doing research, and writing a dissertation; I was awarded my MA a few weeks back. I read plenty for the dissertation, but I won’t be offering up a UX reading list (...perhaps to your relief?). I have a long history of looking back and marveling at the certainty of my past self, particularly when my old predictions have failed to come to fruition. This time last year, I saw a path for the future, albeit a shaky one; I couldn’t have predicted an alternative fork, one the seeds of which were planted right around the time I filed that piece, when I received an email from the BBC offering me a press ticket to the premiere of the new season of my favorite show in the world, Sherlock. I began my year in reading with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d been in the Sherlock fandom for nearly a year at that point -- it’s why I tried so hard to get into the premiere -- but 2014 was the year I started talking about it. Publicly, I mean: first in a piece contextualizing the show and the public’s reaction alongside the late Victorian public’s reaction, working my way through the 60 stories and some contemporary criticism. Then I published what I called a “B-side” -- one in which I fully owned my fannish interest in the show and the canon. I’d written things over the years that hinted at being in various fandoms, at reading fanfiction, at my dedication to participatory media consumption, at having spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time thinking about the minutiae of Harry Potter. In this piece, finally, I went for broke: I called it “Fangirl,” and I laid it all out there. “I obsess,” I wrote. “I've always obsessed.” That piece set me down a new path -- and it shaped what I would read and write about for the bulk of the year. The initial response was a little overwhelming: I’d put something of my true self out there and assumed the worst, somewhere between indifference and mocking, but instead I found so many people that connected with it, that felt it articulated something in their own lives. I made a whole bunch of new internet friends. Soon I was writing about fan stuff for the New Statesman -- part of my plan, I joked, to infiltrate Britain (via the media) from within. (Didn’t do much good, since I’m down to a matter of weeks in the country.) I presented pieces on being a fan at a few academic conferences. By the middle of the year, I was asked to write a regular column on fan culture in the NS. It’s strange and new for me, to have a beat, a broad theme around which a lot of my writing centers. But I’ve been a fan for a few decades now; it’s a joy to write about a topic that’s getting such mainstream recognition -- and, haltingly, even some respect. Last December I envisioned the coming year as one of focused reading, and in a way, I was right -- I just couldn’t have predicted the focus. There was Anne Jamison’s wonderful Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World -- I loved it so much I fangirled at her, and then we fangirled at each other. There was Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, a fascinating book that illuminates so many shifting dynamics in media and culture right now. I checked out the work of Henry Jenkins, one of the most prominent fan studies scholars: I used his Convergence Culture in my dissertation and Textual Poachers to inform my professional writing. I fell in love with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (and then, unsurprisingly, Eleanor and Park) -- and then I fell in love with her Twitter account. I met Erin Clairborne when we were on a panel together at the Nine Worlds convention here in London over the summer, and I just finished her totally fantastic debut novel, A Hero at the End of the World, the first title from the Big Bang Press, which sources writers from fandom to pen original works. And fittingly, since I started the year with Sherlock Holmes, I’m ending with him, too: I just started reading In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a new volume of collected short stories inspired by the Holmes canon, which I plan to write about in conjunction with the new Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t put my money where my mouth is: the books I read this year were great, but then, so was the fanfiction. Over the years I’ve been asked if I’ve read anything good lately, and I’ve always bitten my tongue: I often have, but it’s not “real literature,” after all, but rather some 30-chapter masterpiece that someone has penned for free -- for the love of the source material. I’m kind of done glossing over this major part of my reading life: for every good novel I read this year, I read a fantastic novel-length fic as well. And I’ve reveled at the very real shift I’ve seen in the past year: for every person who asks me what fanfiction is at a party, another leans in and says, “ you have any stories to recommend?” More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel

There is a tangible shape to my year in reading: it can be plotted on a map. It’s comforting for me to think of it that way, as a path arcing out across the Atlantic, because this was my year of big transitions, and it’s easy to lose sight of where I began, and where I am now. I rang in 2013 at a bar on the Gowanus in Brooklyn, my home for the past five years (the borough, not the canal). I’m writing this from my flat in Hackney, tucked between a big, grimy thoroughfare and a slick new Overground station, on the extension of the old East London Line. New York and London sometimes feel like mirror worlds -- some things here are remarkably similar to the city I left behind -- but other things are deeply foreign, in a way that rattles me. I grasp for the familiar, but I’m here to look for the new. It helps, then, to root myself in the books I’ve been reading over the past 11 months: they have carried me across the ocean, as I have carried them. Fittingly enough, I began the year with Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, by Robert Winder. I have no memory of purchasing this book, but it appears to have been printed here in the U.K., so I imagine I picked it up on some Waterstone’s table years ago. (I’ve done stints of various lengths in the British Isles many times in the past decade, all of them characterized by too many impulse-book-buys relative to the sizes of my suitcases.) I’m an aspirational reader when it comes to nonfiction: “Oh, I’m interested in the topic!” I’ll say, super enthusiastically, but in the end I’ll barely manage to slog through the introduction. But Winder is a lively and charming writer, and the book teases out a thread that runs contrary to the popular immigration narrative in Britain: that immigration here, and the racial conflict tied with it, is a modern problem, a post-colonial problem. “Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation,” he writes. “Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.” My spring reading was routine, a stockpile of books for review, some chosen by me, some assigned. So I crisscrossed the globe seemingly at random, cartography determined by publishing schedules and press releases, South Asia to southern New England, Ireland to New York. I like being assigned books, because it takes the pressure off, sometimes: save a few writers that I love and a few that I hate, most authors are new to me. I try to approach each book as an aggressively neutral third party, no preconceived notions, no agendas, no hopes for the reading experience. Of course, at some level, this is bullshit: I am all of my preconceived notions and agendas and hopes for reading packed into a single individual, and it’s impossible to separate that out. But I like the illusion of it, however temporary: the idea that I am a blank slate, open to whatever book drops through my letter box, is a sort of armor against time’s narrowing effects on my mind. And then, it was goodbye to all that. Before the release of the collection that seemed to get all sorts of people riled up (Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York), I wrote my own ode to Joan Didion's leaving-New York essay, as I prepared to leave New York. So I re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, because, well, Joan Didion. Shortly before I packed up the last of my boxes, I flew across the country to visit my little sister in Los Angeles, and I cracked open The White Album for another Didion re-read while sitting on the beach in Santa Monica. I confirmed what I’d suspected all along -- I’m very bad at reading on beaches -- and the book was abandoned in the sand as my shoulders burned. The end of summer was crisp and prematurely autumnal in upstate New York, and as the racing season came to a close, I started to think about which books were making the journey overseas. I made little piles; I swapped out heavier volumes for lighter ones; I tried to think about what I wanted at my side, and the old aspirational book-gathering again -- what sort of person would I be, with these books on my shelf across the ocean? I wound up in the parking lot at JFK on the hottest day in the history of man, sweating profusely as I frantically pulled out paperbacks and handed them to my mother. They would arrive, along with boots and coats and a blanket, in a battered package a month later. By then, I’d already purchased a dozen new books, falling hard on old habits, Waugh and Forster and Conan Doyle, overlarge collections of literary criticism by Edward Said and David Lodge, and a paperback of a book I already own back in the U.S., just because it was £2 and it was there sitting on a table at the store. I trekked up to the IKEA in Tottenham and bought a BILLY bookcase; I proceeded to assemble it incorrectly. It’s nearly full already, and it’s only November. At the Columbia Road Flower Market a few Sundays back I bought my first plant, to sit on top. “It’s my first plant!” I announced to a deeply unimpressed Cockney flower-seller. “Yeah, so that’s a fiver,” he repeated, holding out his hand. I’ve ended the year with books for class -- I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. For now, I’m trying to navigate my transatlanticism as well as I can. On Thanksgiving, after the American service at St Paul’s Cathedral, I walked down Fleet Street and over to Charing Cross Road, where I popped into Foyle’s and picked up Terry Eagleton's Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. On my way out the door I was stopped by a survey-taker — this country seems gripped by a frenzy of surveys right now — to whom I revealed, laughing self-consciously, that I’d come into the store and purchased the book on a whim. Her eyebrows went up when I said it, and she smiled slightly as she ticked the boxes. I didn’t tell her I had a new bookshelf to fill up. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Reif Larsen

Ever since its introduction a little over six (!) years ago, the iPhone and all of its portable touchscreen iterations have fundamentally altered the way we process information, interact with one another, and document our surroundings (through faux, overexposed photographs). The deceptively simple interface of finger against glass proved to be the key to unlocking an unprecedentedly intimate feedback loop between user and device. And yet I believe I am not alone when I say that such intimacy has left me straddling what feels like two warring halves of myself. On the one hand, there is the part of me that appreciates nothing more than the quiet smolder of a 600-page novel’s unfolding narrative. Such stories are slow, multivalent; they demand deep periods of our attention in order to attain a delayed payoff that ultimately resonates far beyond the pages of the book. And then there is the dopamine-addicted part of me that is constantly reaching for my iPhone to monitor a world that has essentially not changed since I last checked up on it five minutes ago. This part of me feels weirdly naked if I leave the house without that little rectangular chunk of metal and glass in my pocket. Like many of you, I cannot help feeling that these two halves are locked in some kind of existential battle; that deep, long-form literary storytelling is incompatible not just with the 140-character lifestyle we are being to trained to embrace, but also with the very architecture of a small, handheld touchscreen. Such a device intrinsically demands to be continuously shuffled in and out of the pocket. Such a device demands—through its shape, size, and interface—enough of your attention to keep you satiated, but not enough to keep you truly engaged. And yet, even in my moments of deepest technopocalyptic pessimism, I also know that there are many exciting opportunities to utilize the touchscreen interface as an innovative platform for telling stories. But let us be blunt: even just that antiseptic word “interface” usually spells doom for conjuring any kind of poetic experience. Print books are still far and away the best interface we’ve got. I’ve waded through enough of those clumsy, masturbatory hypertext disasters that were so en vogue in the ‘90s to know that, contrary to what Robert Coover or others might say, true interactivity is rarely a good thing when it comes to authentic literary pathos. At the end of the day, the reader wants to feel the soft hands of the writer guiding them down the path. Narrative strength arises from narrative finitude. Several years ago, Jeff Rabb and I set about designing an iPad version of my first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Cognizant of the slippery slope offered by interactive platforms, we tried to embrace the unique opportunities that a boundless touchscreen has to offer -- links, partially obscured (yet retrievable) text, birds-eye navigation maps -- but then also temper these opportunities with the lessons of the bounded, curated (i.e. limited) printed page. In my mind, the goal for writers and designers should be to learn from print books and not simply emulate them on a screen, as the first generation of e-books did and continue to do (hello skeuomorphic page-turning animation????). Yet despite countless hours of careful consideration, the iPad adaption of my book was still a little bit awkward, in part because it was exactly that: an adaptation, a work designed for the page that had been exported to the tablet. So perhaps it is fitting that one of my favorite works of this year, Device 6, is a book that was designed specifically for the touchscreen. Actually, I’m not quite sure if it’s even a book or even what a book is anymore. (Perhaps such a term is too limiting -- maybe we need to develop a more sophisticated nomenclature like the Japanese in order to better describe a taxonomy of literary technologies.) Created by Simogo (Simon Flesser and Magnus Gardebäck) out of Malmö, Sweden, Device 6 is the first touchscreen literary creation that succeeds in blending the medium with its content to great and wondrous effect. Device 6 borrows from all kinds of sources, including the stutter-step pacing of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, the minimalist interactivity and wayfaring of early interactive fiction games like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the evocative, aural landscapes of classic radio dramas, the lush graphical enigmas of the Myst games, the nested, textual interplay of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and of course, the creepy, false-naive cat’s cradle of Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Yet somehow Device 6 manages to distinguish itself from all of these precursors by utilizing the very technology it is built upon -- our dependency on our touchscreens -- as its central conceit. We navigate through each chapter of Device 6 by scrolling along little pathways of text and image, following our heroine Anna (a modern day Alice) as she explores a surreal island filled with automatons, looped recordings, and abandoned lighthouses. These textual pathways turn left and right, up and down, backwards and in spirals. We are asked to rotate the touchscreen around in our hands, to flick the words this way and that, and in so doing, we become complicit in the narrative; we are just as disoriented, just as searching as dear Anna. The modernist ‘60s graphics are reminiscent of Saul Bass -- all clean dotted lines, Dewey Decimal labels, and translucent pastel arrowheads. Beneath it all, the impeccable sound-design perfectly undergirds your movement through the story with footsteps, door-clicks, or white-noise from an unseen radio. Like good prose, the sonic landscape suggests without demanding; it evokes without explicating. Indeed, during the whole reading/playing experience, you are taken by an unsettled feeling of urgency and descend into what feels like a finely calibrated mood, just as if you were working your way through a masterfully paced novella. That question of verbiage -- are you reading or are you playing? -- seems to get at the heart of the matter. Late in the story, as your and Anna’s experience begin to converge, Anna, overtaken by deja-vu, muses about such confusion: “I know this place. I’ve been here before. No, wait. I’ve read about this place. But…how? Maybe it was a book. No…not a book. A…game?” Device 6 does break certain traditional literary conventions in that each “chapter” has a series of puzzles you must solve before you can move onto the next. For some, this may disqualify the piece from the genre of the literary and move it firmly into the domain of “video game,” but for me such a distinction is much trickier, for only occasionally do the puzzles feel superficially attached to the story. The format works because, in the end, the very process of your code-breaking becomes the story itself. This also goes for the strange interstitial questionnaires that come between chapters. Initially, they resemble some kind of quirky costumer service survey that Simogo might’ve cleverly woven into its product. But very quickly these questions go off the rails, leaving one to wonder what possible valuable information they could be providing for the game designers. And then you realize the questions are not for them but for you. Such is the nature of this creation: everything about Device 6 -- including your reading/playing experience -- is anticipated by the narrative framework of the book/game. Do I want the trajectory of fiction over the next 50 years to be a slow slide from the 600-page novel to various iterations of game/story smartphone amalgamations like Device 6? Do I want some kind of interactive puzzle to become a prerequisite for any reading experience? Most decidedly, no. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Device 6 doesn’t so much feel like a shortcut as the beginning of a long, important conversation. It is that rare example of talented people crafting gorgeous, smart multimedia creations that push us to reconsider our love of mystery as well as our love of the home button. Can these two impulses exist in harmony? Read/play Device 6 and decide for yourself. Just be sure to send me a tweet afterwards. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

The Second Annual Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement Biggest Redemption Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell In last year’s awards I proclaimed that “everyone is wrong” about Swamplandia!, which I couldn’t stand. I only tried this book at the very strong recommendation of my never-wrong friend Michael Schaub and the promise that one of the stories was about dead presidents reincarnated as farm animals. I loved that story and went on to love all the stories in Vampires. Everything that irked me about Swamplandia! clicked into place in this volume. Perhaps I should give more authors a second chance. Funniest You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me by Nathan Rabin “Everybody who rides a Greyhound from Newark at that hour might as well wear a sign reading, ASK ME ABOUT THE HORRIBLE MISTAKES THAT HAVE LED ME HERE.” Cutest Couple Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell I recently heard Rowell speak, and when asked whether it bothered her that her books were sometimes labeled as Young Adult Romance, replied, “I think ‘romance’ is a word used to make women feel bad about themselves and how they feel, and I refuse to feel bad about either of those things.” So not only do I love Rowell even more than I did already, I’ve become even bolder in recommending the most romantic book I read this year. Best Temper Tantrum The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris The young Theodore Roosevelt loved nature, and brought a lot of it into his childhood bedroom for what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History — snapping turtles tied to the furniture, frogs hidden in his hats — but most of his family called a nuisance. When his mother, exasperated, let loose a litter of field mice he had been housing, he cried, “The loss to Science! The loss to Science!” Most Belated Reading Experience The Secret History by Donna Tartt All the excitement surrounding The Goldfinch’s release led me to read the novel that made Tartt a literary darling back in 1992. A few sleepless nights later I was dying to go back in time so I could talk to everyone about it. Best Back Catalog Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns by John Green After joining the legions who love The Fault in Our Stars last year, I quickly read his first three novels. Although they don’t transcend the YA genre as much as his mega-seller, they’re all superb YA novels. I don’t think anyone has portrayed high school life as realistically since Freaks & Geeks. Biggest Failure The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr For a few years I have been wanting to read Carr's book about how the internet is affecting our attention spans and "ability to read and think deeply," so I got it out from the library. But then I got busy with, I don't know, finding new Tumblrs and watching eyeshadow tutorials on YouTube, so 3 weeks later, to avoid the fine, I returned it to the library unread, and the gods of irony laughed. Best Career Inspiration Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy One of the characters in this book says that she wants to start a magazine called “Everything Gauche” and now, by gum, so do I. Best Epiphany This Bright River by Patrick Somerville I turned 30 this year, a milestone I was relieved to reach in a way I couldn't put my finger on. A few days after my birthday I read this passage that sums it up perfectly. Occasionally I would join them for their weekly baby lunches, depending on whether I was busy that day, and all of us could discuss how strange it was that we were no longer part of the youngest generation or (for that matter) the generation of the main people on TV, that marketing didn't seem directed at us anymore, how we didn't quite know what to make of the early days of this new status as adults but that it did seem to have its benefits, like a remarkable unbounded freedom, despite the stresses and responsibilities, which seemed to want to take that same freedom right back. Best Read of the Year The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer This book also swept Best Depiction of Female Friendship, Book I’ve Recommended and Given the Most, Best Depiction of Class, and Author I Want to Be Friends With. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Detroit Fiction: On Rightsizing American Literature

Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway? Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like "Where Have All The Mailers Gone?", a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction "a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers." The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction...has always thrived.” The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art -- in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue. In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists -- they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates. That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden. This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century. I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban -- these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent. There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions. I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century -- the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again. In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game. And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either -- cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them -- and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today's suburbanized literature -- a dim light bulb -- has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do. Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn't to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller's furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog "the hot lava which was bubbling inside me." So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart." That's about as far from the suburbs as you can get. Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Tristram Shandy, Dilettante: Laurence Sterne and the Pleasures of Attention-Deficit Literature

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it. I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers -- idle hands, etc. -- but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader -- it is the basis for his process of composition. A précis of Shandy is more or less impossible, and tempts Shandean distractions of its own. Nonetheless: the title character wishes to write his memoirs. (The why is unclear, though an encyclopedic impulse runs in the family -- Shandy senior has written tracts on the naming of children; pseudo-Descartian meditations on the pineal gland; a discourse on the importance of proper balance between “radical heat and radical moisture” in the human animal -- you get the idea.) Along the way, everything goes wrong, both in the writing and the living. A mis-wound clock distracts his parents at the moment of his conception; a scullery maid’s malapropism results in his absurd, medieval first name; the memoirist himself becomes so distracted that he does not emerge from the womb until the novel is one-third done. Sterne writes a chapter on buttons; he writes a chapter on knots. Many of the chapters are shorter than a page. The author’s preface arrives in chapter 20 of the third volume. The novel’s most endearing character -- besides the garrulous autobiographer himself -- is Uncle Toby, a veteran of the French wars who returns with an embarrassing wound to his groin and, post-convalescence, spends his days in the backyard building scale models of various theaters of battle, the better to relive his glory days. Transitions between high, anarchic comedy and sustained passages of sentiment can be sudden and vertiginous. Shandy is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash; Shandy falls in love with a “nut-brown maid” in France; a heartstring-yanking obituary for a jolly priest named Yorick is followed by a wordless, all-black page; an inveterate bore named Phutatorius (Latin for “Fucker”) has the misfortune to catch a burning chestnut in his breeches. (Genitalia in general do not fare well in this book.) And an alleged act of bestiality leads to the iconic final words of the novel: 'L--d!' said my mother, 'what is all this story about?' ---- 'A COCK and a BULL,' said Yorick ---- 'And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.' I could go on, but that’s the point -- Shandy’s project is telescopically expandable, as he notes with less anxiety than glee: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” Days are more easily lived than written, at least with the narrator’s level of detail and errant whimsicality: “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good.” Hamlet saturates certain volumes of Shandy, the Dane’s inability to take action here spun into a structural literary motif: the fullness, absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of life outpace man’s ability to take stock of them -- and man, in turn, responds by dragging his feet, gazing at his navel, and losing focus whenever a new and shiny object is presented to him. Let’s not mince words: this is all deeply silly. And that, of course, is the point. On trial in Shandy are the masturbatory elements of scholarship; distractible humans and their whimsical hobbies; the proliferating literary phenomenon of “biographical freebooters”; and self-involved males who can argue (with a Voltairean antilogic) finer points of causality while, upstairs, poor Mrs. Shandy lies in excruciating, protracted labor. Few novels -- even few early novels -- have less believability in them. And yet Shandy, in all its digressive, distracted, ADD glory, captures something of life that narratives of linear focus rarely can. The characters who labored in service to the early novel -- the fictional memoirists of Defoe, the virtuous letter-writers of Richardson -- told tales semi-intended to be taken as true, and which sometimes were: after the massive success of Gulliver’s Travels, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift, “Gulliver is in every body’s hands...I lent the book to an old Gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.” The idea of readerly enjoyment was a vicarious identification with characters we might, in an idle moment, fancy to be real. (Richardson coyly dubbed himself the mere “editor” of Clarissa; Fielding, in proto-Sternean mockery of Richardson, insisted on Tom Jones as a “history.”) Sterne took this early and enduring premise of fiction and extended it to its illogical conclusion: a book that seeks to mimic “reality” will, in fact, smack of distraction and madness. When people talk about Shandy nowadays, it is in the context of the postmoderns. In the inventive and charming 2006 film, Steve Coogan intones: “Shandy was a postmodern classic before there was a modernism to be post about." Sterne indeed anticipated many of the tics and preoccupations that came to define (and oversimplify) postmodernism as inherently “self-conscious.” A text is a text, and there is an author behind it, whatever Roland Barthes may say, and somewhere in the 20th century the dominant premise of fiction -- the suspension of disbelief, of our knowledge that these characters aren’t real -- was no longer enough. The Wizard had to emerge from behind the curtain; metacritical comment became de rigueur. Books of fiction had to declare as such, and to remark, speciously or otherwise, on the process of their own composition. What is lacking in the more paranoid of the postmoderns is a Shandean sense of textual play as total entertainment. Did Sterne agonize over the “constructed” nature of his opus? No; he reveled in it. His footnotes were not self-lacerating interrogations of the potential dishonesty of the enterprise -- they were postscript punchlines to jokes that already had you splitting your sides and getting weird looks in terminal D at O’Hare. The book is a total funhouse, full of toys, surprises, and regressive loops. Volume IX leaves two chapters totally blank, where the author sees fit to introduce the events of chapter 25 before returning to numbers 18 and 19. In lieu of describing the toothsome Widow Wadman in Volume VI, Sterne allows you an empty page on which to draw your conception of the perfect woman: “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind----as like your mistress as you can----as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you--'tis all one to me.” ‘Tis all one to us, as well. Sterne invites us to skip passages that bore, forget passages that displease, to hop and jump between chapters, and to reimagine scenes to our own liking. In elevating to muse-status his own fickle fancy, Sterne indulges ours, creating a book that is less a novel than the longest sustained joke in the English language. And yes, it is long. But here’s the secret: you don’t really need to finish it to get the joke. Just follow the big F, if you prefer -- you’ll miss the climax between Toby and the Widow, but so did Coogan et al. in the film. (There was just a lot happening on the set, see, and they got distracted.) Information overload is not a new phenomenon -- it’s sort of just part of being alive. Our current objects of distraction may be somewhat newer and shinier, and fewer of us read Latin and French, but the Shandean truths abide. If Sterne can teach us anything, it is to enjoy the flightiness of our mortal minds -- not to lament, but to laugh.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 5. Train Dreams 5 months 2. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 2 months 3. 7. How to Sharpen Pencils 3 months 4. 8. New American Haggadah 4 months 5. 9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 3 months 6. - The Patrick Melrose Novels 1 month 7. 10. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 3 months 8. - A Naked Singularity 1 month 9. - Binocular Vision 2 months 10. - The Flame Alphabet 1 month Four books -- John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift -- decamp for our Hall of Fame this month. The former three were brought to the attention of our readers during our Year in Reading series in December, while the latter anchored a holiday gift guide for writers. With all those books departing, our new number one is Denis Johnson's Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams. It also makes room for three newcomers on the list and a returning title, Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision. The debuts are Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (reviewed here in February), A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (we reviewed the book in early January and interviewed Marcus later in the month). Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, Open City, The Great Frustration, 11/22/63, and Gods Without Men. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Pulphead 6 months 2. 3. The Book of Disquiet 6 months 3. 2. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 6 months 4. 4. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 6 months 5. 6. Train Dreams 4 months 6. - Bring Up the Bodies 1 month 7. 10. How to Sharpen Pencils 2 months 8. 5. New American Haggadah 3 months 9. 7. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 2 months 10. 9. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 2 months Our one debut this month is one of the most anticipated books of the year: Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, her sequel to Millions July 2010 Hall of Famer Wolf Hall. The arrival of the Thomas Cromwell juggernaut bumps Binocular Vision from our list. David Rees' How to Sharpen Pencils is the other big mover on our list, jumping three spots. Our in depth, hilarious interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Next month should be very interesting as we'll see the top four books on our list move to the Hall of Fame, opening four new spots. Near Misses: Binocular Vision, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and 11/22/63. See Also: Last month's list.
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