I read a novel over the weekend. It was Émile Zola’s 1880 bestseller Nana. A few days previously I’d sat next to Tom Wolfe, the USA’s greatest living novelist, at a dinner and asked him about his own literary heroes. Zola was the first name he mentioned. I had never read a word by Zola, but an endorsement from Tom Wolfe is not to be ignored. On my next trip to the library I took out Nana.
With all love and respect to Tom (who has a new novel of his own coming out October 23), I can’t say Zola swept me off my feet. Possibly I just read the wrong book. There is no psychological depth there, nothing to make one care much one way or the other about the main characters. I kept thinking how much better a job Trollope would have done. I can see how Nana’s frankness must have been sensational in its time. Today, though, it seems over-colored and garish.
Zola describes Nana as having been “born from four or five generations of drunkards.” Sniffs editor Luc Sante in the 2006 Barnes & Noble Classics edition: “The genetic notions advanced here have long been discredited, although we know that behavior is often handed down through the generation by example.”
Uh-huh. I’m starting to favor a Constitutional Amendment to the effect that anyone saying in print or pixels that such-and-such a notion has been “discredited” should be obliged to tell us by whom the discrediting was done, when, where, with what methodology, and the specific informed criticism that countered it.
Anyway, there I was at the weekend reading a novel. Tom Wolfe’s recommendation was only the prompt. It’s been nagging at me for a while that I don’t read enough books, especially fiction. Like the rest of you, I’m too darn distracted by the Internet.
Well, perhaps not as badly distracted as the rest of you. Not as badly, for sure, as the guy sitting next to me on the Long Island Railroad the other day who spent most of the one-hour trip into Manhattan twiddling with a handheld gadget—a smartphone, I guess. From time to time he’d tuck it in his pocket and sit staring into space for two or three minutes, then pull it out again for some more twiddling and scrolling. Addiction? Definitely.
I don’t have one of those gadgets, but I’m sufficiently addicted. Mornings after breakfast I sit down at my laptop and do email. Then I go through my Google Reader roll—thirty or so blogs and websites I like to check general-interest sites such as Discover Blogs, Andy Ross, and ParaPundit; National Question outlets such as Refugee Resettlement Watch and VDARE; and oppositional-conservative bloggers such as JewAmongYou and AltRight. They all have links to follow and video clips to play. After that I scan Drudge and read the online UK Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
By now it’s well past midday. Walk the dog. Take lunch. Check back on the Reader roll for updates. Same with Drudge. Check some fun sites and some I can’t subscribe to on Google Reader. Now it’s getting to be late afternoon, and I haven’t done any, like, work.
I used to console myself with the thought that at least I’d been reading masses of news and informed opinion, making myself wiser and better equipped to add my own few cents to the pile. This is getting harder and harder to believe. There’s something fleeting, something trivializing about the Internet. I think what I have actually done is wasted five or six perfectly good hours when I could have been working up a book proposal, fixing a side door in the garage, doing bench presses, or…or…reading a novel.
Dr. Johnson used to speak of idle rich people at fashionable spas trying to “rid themselves of the day.” Have I come to that at last? Scanning back, I do seem to have rid myself of a lot of days with not much to show for them.
I should work out a Plan of Life. No Internet after 11 AM! Two good solid books a week, one of them fiction! Regular daily exercise with free weights! Two hours set aside for household chores!
Yet no sooner do I form the idea than despair and fatalism set in. If I were the kind of person to stick to a discipline like that, I would have done so long since. And hey, at least I’m not that guy on the train, drawn irresistibly, twitching, to his microscopic toy. I don’t watch TV, either, surely saving myself major brain rot right there. And I’m one of the dwindling number of American males who occasionally reads fiction (an almost exclusively female-readership zone nowadays, according to publishers’ lore).
It’s not as if we all sat around thinking Deep Thoughts before the Internet age. We read more, but not that much more. Here, reproduced from Chapter 4 of that tremendous bestseller We Are Doomed, are the decade-by-decade number of TIME magazine covers featuring novelists from the 1920s to 2000s: 12, 10, 5, 7, 6, 5, 3, 3, 0. (Jonathan Franzen broke the duck in 2010; but I don’t think it heralds a trend.)
What did we do? Watched TV. Went to bars and ball games. Played cards. Bickered with our spouses and kids. Got quietly sozzled in the Barcalounger.
Human beings weren’t made to work, or think much, or read much. Of our Paleolithic ancestors, Cochran and Harpending remark in The 10,000 Year Explosion that: “If they had full stomachs and their tools and weapons were in good shape…they hung out: They talked, gossiped, and sang.”
If they’d had smartphones, they’d have been twiddling.