Sunday, 17 November 2013

Losing Our Attention

The technological boom of the 90s has seen so many incredible, once inconceivable, inventions become available to us - ones that we would find it so difficult to live without in the post-modern age. The Internet, of course, is the primary catalyst for the complete upheaval of the way in which we communicate, connect, and, indeed, learn.

But with all the wonders that it brings: instant chat, instant knowledge, instant...everything, there is an underlying fear that lurks in the social implications of the Internet boom.

Social networking has taken a battering of late, as sociologists consider and critique the ways in which we now communicate and convey ourselves via social networking sites such as Facebook - check out this video for an interesting interpretation of the way in which we are supposedly now all so "connected".

But what worries me, is not so much the frailty and falsity of our "relationships", or "friends", but rather what the Internet is doing to our perception of learning, to our desire for knowledge.

The Internet is a student's dream - Google anything these days and, somewhere, you'll find an answer. Certainly, it is far easier to search in for a French definition, than to trawl through a dictionary. But is this instant availability of knowledge detrimental to our development as people? I mean, as thinking people?

I see two flaws with the Internet as a source of knowledge:

 1. In the quality - how do you know that the first link that you click on is truth, and fact? If anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, how are we sure of any of the claims it makes? The abundance of information now available on the World Wide Web, though it may be tantalizing interesting, precise, and clear, is not monitored by anyone. Sure, you'd think you can trust sites such as The Guardian, and The Telegraph, but where is the quality control?

2. In the ease and speed - this might seem bizarre, for surely one of the main positives of the Internet is the speed at which we can access things. Yet, the speed, the not-needing-to-learn-the-skills of patience, to dissect and to search for the answer, this is something which is concerning as it means that we no longer ask questions. We are prepared to take the first answer that comes, and if we stop asking questions, we stop learning how to learn. We simply appropriate knowledge, we consume it, we do not discover it.

The internet, although on the one hand enabling innovation and communication, will, on the other hand, lead to a serious reduction in the attention span of young people, as they grow up in a world where answers are handed to them on a plate. Diminishing our attention span as a society, it will incite laziness. Our patience as readers, learners, and also with each other will suffer (who hasn't unknowingly been distracted from a face-to-face conversation to check their email on their phone?)

This applies to sciences, economics, politics - whatever field of study or interest. If we lose the ability or the desire to learn, because we are handed the answers by those who have already figured them out, what do we become?

The effect this will have on the younger generations of readers is what concerns me the most. How will a three hundred page novel, now, hold the attention of a fourteen year old? How does an author retain our interest when we are so prone to clicking on the next thing after two minutes of concentrating?

This is a problem that contemporary authors of today will have to tackle. Zadie Smith is already doing it, others will follow suit.

How do you engage a reader, without taking up too much of their time?

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Kindle Temptation

The Kindle.

Oh what a dilemma it causes me. I have had to eat my words, and swallow my pride in regards to this little gadget. You see, when the kindle was first introduced to the market, I was its biggest critic. If the kindle was portrayed as some miraculous discovery, I was an atheist. I just didn't believe. Even now, I stand by my judgement that it is a kind of profanity to books - but I stand by it hypocritically, with my purple-cased story-holder sitting just a few centimetres away.

The thing is, there's this little devil perched just above my right shoulder whispering words like "practical, economical, compact", and I do rather relish the fact I don't have to carefully poise myself in bed to prop the page open.

Yet, I still resent it. I'm grateful for it, but I hate it.

The little angel above my left shoulder pleads with me about the sanctity of the book, the tangible product, the gratifying feeling when you close the final page and can see what you've achieved, when you pop the book onto the book-shelf as a constant reminder of that momentary world that you lived in.

"Embrace it" says the devil, "get over your principles."
"Defend it" says the angel, "resist".

Maybe its time to let go? We are living in the digital age after all. Books themselves, will never disappear forever, will they? And if a gadget gets more people reading, then I'm all for it.

But when you look at the transformations occurring in the way publishing houses publish books, pre-releasing in digital format, it makes you wonder at what point in time, maybe 50 years from now, will it become too uneconomical and inefficient to print books. (probably sooner than that at this rate!)

It will be a sad day, the day that e-books take over from ordinary books, like online newspapers are doing for the broadsheet. A sad day for readers, libraries, and culture.

I suppose though, in an ideological world, all that really matters, are the words. Whether it is told to you by your dad at bedtime, or your teacher at school, by a hardback, paper back, audio-book or e-book, it's the story that lasts.

Zadie Smith - The Embassy of Cambodia

As an English and French undergraduate, and one who chose to study only literature modules in my final year *should have thought that through*, my degree seems to be one non-stop reading list, with a few intermittent splurges of French grammar and translation to keep me on my toes!

A long list it may be, but boy is it a good one! From Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, to Beigbeder's Un Roman francais, Smith's N.W. to Quignard's Villa Amalia, the list is varied, colourful and intriguing.

I must admit, although I am enjoying the variety of 600 page works I've come across, I couldn't help doing a little victory dance when I found that the next piece I was to read for my dissertation, Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia, was only sixty-nine pages long. That's right, sixty nine sweet pages. But surely Smith's work would suffer from the 300-odd pages it was missing? Surely she couldn't capture all that she had in White Teeth, or N.W. in just sixty nine pages?

Yes, she could.

I have heard some people class The Embassy of Cambodia as Smith's little victory lap, her publishers allowing her all sorts of liberties due to her renowned success since the publication of her first novel White Teeth at the age of 21 - when she was a student at Cambridge University, and later with On Beauty and N.W. (The Autograph Man has seemed to slip quietly into the shadows...) In fact, I would say that The Embassy of Cambodia - which was originally a piece she wrote of The New Yorker - is a classy, clever, and skilful demonstration of just how much Smith has developed as an writer, in her perception of what is necessary in a story.  

Like the majority of her other novels, The Embassy of Cambodia is set in the "multicultural" London suburb of Willesden Green, where Smith grew up. Also like the majority, The Embassy of Cambodia tackles big themes such as immigration, class distinction and the monotony of the present:

Fatou - a young immigrant from the Ivory Coast - is sent to England by her father where she works as a nanny for a rich, ignorant White-British family. As Fatou passes the Embassy of Cambodia on her daily walk to the swimming pool, she sees the constant to-ing and fro-ing of a shuttlecock flying high above the tall walls of the embassy. The back and forth, attack-defence of the shuttlecock provides a rhythm to the short narrative as Fatou pursues her day to day duties, her only sense of spontaneity and courage stemming from her relationship with her Catholic friend, Andrew. Smith shows us snippets of Fatou's life prior to England, where she worked on Carib Beach in the Ivory Coast, was violated by Russians and demeaned by British tourists - essentially anyone with money. Clearly, Fatou is another one of Smith's protagonists who is trapped not only by their race, but also by their class - her position in England is no better, as she is cruelly and coldly sacked from her job. The constancy of this inequality is echoed by the shuttlecock's continuous back and forth. Might, one day it float over the fence and into her hand, freeing her from this repetitive life?

The Embassy of Cambodia, is subtle, yet packs a punch. A novella or short story that narrates an unfair world. If you like Smith's work, what have you got to lose when its only sixty nine pages of your time?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Welcome to The Reading Thing

To be honest with you, I haven't entirely decided what this blog will be about...

The plan is to talk about books, authors, critics and all things literature, but who knows what surprises lurk in my blogging future. I have know idea what I'm going to write, all I know is I want to write something.

Hopefully, through this blog, the random thoughts that I get or responses that I feel from reading bits of this and that will be able to resist getting lost in the endless mess of prose and French grammar that is the average English and French lit student's life.

Everyone else is writing them down, why shouldn't I?

So, excuse the self-indulgence but I hope you find something interesting in what I have to say. Above all, I hope it makes you want to read something!