The Great American Novel: will there ever be another?

By Roger Kimball in the Weekly Standard:

‘We live in an age when there is tremendous competition for—I was going to say “the reader’s attention,” but reading is part, a large part, of what has suddenly become negotiable. The Yale literary critic Geoffrey Hartman once wrote a book called The Fate of Reading: It is not, in my judgment, a very good book, but it would have been had Professor Hartman got around to addressing the subject announced in his provocative title. It is of course a subject that goes far beyond the issue of the American or any other sort of novel: The advent of television, the ubiquity of mass media, the eruption of the Internet and ebooks with their glorification of instantaneity—all this has done an extraordinary amount to alter the relationship between life and literature. Television lulled us into acquiescence, the Internet with its vaunted search engines and promise of the world at your fingertips made further inroads in seducing us to reduce wisdom to information: to believe that ready access to information was somehow tantamount to knowledge. I pause here to quote David Guaspari’s wise and amusing observation on this subject: “Comparing information and knowledge,” he writes, “is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter rule.”

I am not, to be candid, quite sure what the “designated hitter rule” portends, but I am confident that it has nothing to do with being green or porcine plumpness. When I was in graduate school, I knew some students who believed that by making a Xerox copy of an article, they had somehow absorbed, or at least partly absorbed, its content. I suppose the contemporary version of that déformation professionelle is the person who wanders around with a computer perpetually linked to Google and who therefore believes he knows everything. It reminds one of the old complaint about students at the elite French universities: They know everything, it was said; unfortunately that is all they know.’

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