Memo to Hugh McGuire from Walter J. Ong

How many times have you berated yourself for spending too much of the morning, or most of a whole goddamn day, on Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, email? Hugh McGuire is peddling a cure for what ails you: abstention in the name of reading books, the mental and moral space where you get your mind back.

It’s snake oil, of course, the equivalent of the laxatives, emollients, stimulants, and painkillers sold from painted wagons in the Old West.

The peddler this time is no more stupid and venal—-he’s no less smart and funny—-than the men who sold these dubious wares. What sets him apart is his relentless sincerity. It makes him hilarious, a kind of Andy Kaufman for the age of Lewis Lapham, Leon Wieseltier, and Thomas Frank, our pontificators par excellence.

Hugh just hates the “meaningless wash of digital information” because it reduces his attention span, makes him multi-task. As a result, he says, he read only four books last year. And that’s a genuine tragedy because books are really, really important to him. “Certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.”

For me anyway, this sounds silly, like a parody of post-structuralism written by the dreadnought of feminists, Martha (The Marathon) Nussbaum. It’s non-academic jargon. Ideas, purposes, world views, the words themselves, of course these are what hold every one of us together as sentient, social beings who can deliver on our promises, but books can’t contain them all, and never have.

Ask Walter J. Ong, who showed us that the human sensorium was fundamentally changed by the advent of the codex book—-and not necessarily for the better.

But Hugh McGuire also has daughters, and they are almost as important as the books in holding him together. One of them, the four-year old, scolded him for looking at his phone while talking to her, the other, a mere two years old, surely would have, had she known he was texting (Twitter) during her ballet performance.

C’mon, man are you angling to be the fish in the barrel? The fundamental problem with jeremiads against the distractions of digital technology like McGuire’s (or Jonathan Franzen’s) is that their complaints unconsciously reproduce the diction and the content of earlier anxieties about the results of information made unpredictable first by alphabets and writing as such, then by printing, later by movies and television, now by cybernation.

Listen to Hugh talk about his love of books, and ask if his complaint about digital detritus is this: I have too much freedom online, I’d much prefer a sado-masochistic encounter with a singular author.

“Books recreate someone else’s thoughts inside our own minds, and maybe it is this one-to one mapping of someone else’s words, on their own, without external stimuli [sic], that gives books their power. Books force us to let someone else’s thoughts inhabit our minds completely. Books are not just transferrers of knowledge and emotion [sic], but a kind of tool that flattens one’s self into another.”

Please note that Hugh is here expressing admiration for books, not criticism of them. He clearly wants to be punished by these physical artifacts and their creators. He wants to deny himself the promiscuous pleasures he associates with the polymorphous perversity of digital information. He wants to get clean and sober.

“[I]t started to occur to me that ‘learning how to read books again’ might also be a way to start weaning my mind from this dopamine-soaked digital detritus, this meaningless wash of digital information, which would have a double benefit: I would be reading books again, and I would get my mind back.”

Ah, Hugh, I hope you do get your mind back, having sworn off a lot of digital detritus. But, just curious, what are you going to do with it?

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