Technology and Terrified Book Critics

Over at Critical Mass, Ellen Heltzel points (but doesn’t link) to this Terry Caesar essay. Caesar suggests that when a college student sits down to read a book, she might find difficulty looking for a space to read. Apparently, Caesar and Heltzel don’t seem to understand that the United States, which recently surpassed the 300 million population mark, has 3,537,441 square miles, or a little over a tenth of a square mile for each person. For those playing at home, that’s about 528 square feet per person. Do you mean to tell me that with this kind of mutable density, there isn’t anywhere to go to read? There isn’t anywhere to be alone with a book?

Further, Caesar and Heltzel suggest, rather foolishly, that text messaging, instant messaging, and television, in Heltzel’s words, “promote groupthink” and are thus “a dangerous place to be in a democracy.” Caesar (never was there a more ridiculous byline for a generalizer) cites an empirical example. The daughter of one of his friends flunks out of a state university because “she could never actually read anywhere.” But instead of suggesting that this student was not particularly effective at locating a reading environment that suited her (or, for that matter, suggesting that good grades aren’t necessarily reflective of good reading; or, for that matter, considering the other circumstantial factors which might have caused this student to drop out), Caesar makes an astonishing leap in logic, writing that “the girl fell victim to the energies of a text-messaged, i-Poded [sic] and above all cell-phoned American culture.”

First off, even if we assume the unlikely scenario that students are putting down their books to text message each other every paragraph or that these students cannot attune to their surroundings, what exactly about the freeflow exchange of information is “dangerous?”

If Caesar and Heltzel are going to point the finger at technology, why stop there? What about the forms of communication that came before? Why not rail against the letter or everyday conversation, where people (shocK! gasp! horror!) actually talk and thus engage (in Heltzel’s words) in “groupthink?” By what stretch of the imagination does a student sending an IM reading “hey! meet u at party; book great!!! byob lulz” become groupthink? I really wish Caesar and Heltzel would have had the courage to state what might really be on their minds: perhaps it is they who can neither understand nor adapt to the swift beat of technology. But instead of trying to determine how it exists in relation to culture and reading, they rail against it with hasty generalizations and without taking the time to understand it.


  1. I read at Starbucks.

    I’ve done it in New York. I even read on an airplane.

    Flying coach. Just sit down, turn on the headphones, and drown the world out. Amazing how fast you can get through Phillip Roth with Metallica’s …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL drowning out the snoring businessman next to you. (The iPod doesn’t really help when he leans over the wrong way and drools onto your armrest. That’s off-topic thoug.) Space? Boy, howdy, do we got space to read! Lots of it if you know what you’re doing.

    Or even if you don’t. I believe those big quiet places with trees are called… Wait a minute. It’s coming to me. Oh, yeah. They’re called “parks.” I see people reading there all the time. Even in a backwater red state such as mine. (Right now, the self-destruction of Ken Blackwell’s political career is making the humor lists here.)

    So there’s lots of places to read in America, which, having driven across various sections of it and its nicer neighbor, Canada, is one big ass country. If Caesar cites his daughter as empiracle evidence…

    Scratch that. We live in an era where any anecdote, no matter how egregiously improbably it is, is considered anecdotal.

    I’ll just be over here banging my head against a brick wall if you need me.

  2. “Scratch that. We live in an era where any anecdote, no matter how egregiously improbably it is, is considered anecdotal.”

    Er… I meant to say “Is considered empirical,” but George Bush sneaked in while I was on the john and typed the line for me. Since I’m a lousy proofreader, I didn’t catch the gaff.

    Good thing I seldom get paid to write. Such screw ups would make it hard to put food on the family.

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