Oh brave new (nonlinear) world

Robert Pittman, the founder and executive vice-president of MTV (for recent arrivals on the planet, that’s the all-rock video network), gazed into his crystal ball in a recent issue of Money magazine and gave us this vision of the shape of things to come:

“People who have grown up with television process information in a significantly different way than those who haven’t… By the year 2000, we will see a proliferation of nonlinear entertainment forms that don’t depend on a strong story line and plot but rather are based on mood and emotion.”

Much of Pittman’s revelation is just warmed-over Marshall McCluhan medium-is-the-messageism, and one could certainly argue, after spending a few unhappy nights with television, that his future is already too much with us. Many popular television programs have jettisoned “strong story line and plot” in favor of syrupy, touch-feely family shows peopled by nauseatingly cute little moppets (“Webster,” “Punky Brewster”) or impressionistic pastiches of overt sex, subliminal suggestion and exaggerated, operatic violence (“The Insiders,” “Miami Vice”).

There’s not much new in Pittman’s prophecy (though it’s odd that he even bothered to issue forecasts in a magazine, part of that creaking, linear print culture). Given the ample and depressing evidence that millions who have grown up with television can barely “process” information at all-even the information on a job application or a soup can-his view of the future comes as no shock. Even now, it would be absurd to argue that books serve as the cultural glue that holds us together. Try making a reference to a book, even a supermarket best-seller, next time you’re at a party. You may not be invited again. Try a reference to any of the TV shows mentioned above, and it’s instant conversation. I once wrote a story on a brilliant poet who said she was cork-popping happy when one of her books sold 10,000 copies. The ugliest dog of a TV series may be taken out and shot after six episodes-but even these losers are watched by 8 to 10 million people. No contest.

Perhaps book lovers today are indeed the latest dinosaurs, too dumb to adapt to the Age of the Image, munching blithely on Victorian novels while the glaciers descend. The average American, studies show, did not quite read a whole book last year; many college students sail through an entire “education” on the wings of Monarch and Cliffs notes; most people get their understanding of the world, such as it is, from 30-second clips on the evening news and would consider reading an entire issue of Newsweek to be cruel and unusual punishment.

And what of our leaders? When was the last time an American president urging us back to those good old educational basics (whatever those are) set an example by discussing-or even mentioning-a book he had read? Much was made over John Kennedy’s authoring two books (Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage; the latter won a Pulitzer). It’s since been revealed that Kennedy, whose own reading taste ran to James Bond novels, had plenty of help from ghostwriters. But let’s be grateful for small things. Even if JFK’s books were a joint project, cynically undertaken to give him a veneer of intellectuality, at least for one shining moment a powerful man saw books as good for something-if only a means of gaining more power.

Since Kennedy, most of our presidents have governed with little interference from books or authors. It’s hard to picture Johnson, Ford or Reagan curled up with the latest John Updike, John Irving or even John Jakes. Jimmy Carter flirted with the literati long enough to bend his mind with The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. The result, it seems, was that ill-fated speech in which Carter blamed America’s problems not on the greed of OPEC but on a “spiritual malaise” sapping the will of the people. We all know what happened later, how the “malaise” speech became political dynamite in the hands of Ronald Reagan, who must have left Carter ruing the day he ever picked up one of those damned books.

The point is certainly not that our recent presidents are stupid men; far from it. Nixon and Carter are especially capable thinkers, and the others, even the much-maligned Gerald Ford, are no doubt above average mentally. But that merely drives home the point. Gifted men with superior intelligence, they still see little need for books, whether for escape or enlightenment-or if they do, they keep those private passions hidden from the public. In this, they are truly representative men of their times. How often do we meet people who remind us of fine engines running on inferior fuel, or advanced computers that have never been programmed? They would score high on any IQ test, but they have little of what was once called, without blushing, culture-what Matthew Arnold defined as “the best that has been thought and said.” And that’s because culture, as it’s been understood for centuries, is transmitted by that old, boring, linear process called reading.

Robert Pittman may be right in saying that the future will be more like an MTV video than like Huckleberry Finn, Lord Jim or some other great book. But, perhaps because the Royals just won the Series and the first crisp days of autumn are here, I don’t feel like accepting that gloomy prospect. I don’t have much hard evidence to deny it, but yesterday, a friend told me that her six-year-old shuns Saturday morning cartoons in favor of books like Robinson Crusoe. Imagine.

And there are other faint hints of a backlash against the Tyranny of the Image enforced by television and the movies. Some educators and politicians have tumbled to the realization that our entire educational system is built on books and that old linear way of thinking. Here and there, you meet people who know that our schools are only a part of society, and that if society cares nothing for the best that has been thought and said, our children will be left with a very shrunken cultural heritage. Kids mimic their elders. They see Michael Jackson, with a candlewatt mind, pack stadiums and haul off millions. They see Pete Rose, a great hitter who would have trouble directing you to his house, smiling from their Wheaties box. So many winners, so much wealth-and all done without any help from books. The kids get the message. No package of educational reforms, however well-intended and well-financed, can prevail against a society that no longer cares about drawing meanings-story line and plot, and mood and emotion-from the painstaking work of great writers. When we have forgotten books, we may be a prosperous and powerful society, but we will certainly be living in a brave new world-an unsettling idea brought to us by a book, which then became a movie, and is not yet a miniseries.


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