Sunshine Recorder

Link: Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything"

Suzanne Goldenberg: The climate-change movement is making little headway against corporate vested interests, says the author of Shock Doctrine. But how does she think her new book, This Changes Everything, will help galvanise people?

Naomi Klein is the star of the new American left. At 44, the writer and activist has twice written blockbusters combining ground-level reporting and economic analysis that challenged people to take a hard look at what they took for granted: their shopping choices, America’s place in the world, and the devastating effects of arcane trade policy and rampant free market ideology. Along the way she gained a following that spans academics, celebrities and street and factory protesters.

Her first book, No Logo, about the power of brands over sweatshop workers in Asia who made the products (and the consumers in America and Europe who consumed them), politicised a generation of twentysomethings. It became the handbook of the anti- globalisation protests, and inspired two Radiohead albums.

Seven years later, her second book, Shock Doctrine, analysed how wars, coups and natural disasters were used as a pretext to impose so-called “free market” measures. Now Klein is back, writing about capitalism, only this time the fate of the entire planet is at stake. With her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein hopes to set off the kind of powerful mass movement that could – finally – produce the radical changes needed to avoid a global warming catastrophe and fix capitalism at the same time. She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.

“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”

When we meet in her Toronto home, Klein is juggling a schedule that combines the standard author book readings and television interviews and planning for an event in New York City billed as the biggest climate march ever seen. Her husband, film-maker Avi Lewis, is out shooting a companion film due for release in January. The two text back and forth during our chat.

Klein does not easily fit into most people’s view of a committed environmentalist. She drives a car (it is a hybrid). She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal”. There is a brightly coloured plastic playhouse in the garden that was probably made in China. Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.

In a long conversation over the dining table, Klein says she is not about to purge her life of plastics or fossil fuels. She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits. And she is definitely not going to subscribe to the idea that climate change ranks above all other causes.

“I think there has been this really bad habit of environmentalists being insufferably smug, where they are sort of saying: ‘This is the issue that beats all other issues’ or, ‘Your issue doesn’t matter because nothing matters if the earth is fried.’” Klein says committed environmentalists aren’t her target anyway. “What I hope is less about what the greens will do, but what people who don’t consider themselves part of the green movement will do,” she says. “This book is not written for the environmental movement. It is written much more for people who would never read a book about climate change but are engaged with economic justice of other kinds.”

That is where Klein believes she can do the most good. “I want to act, if I can, as a bridge for people who read Shock Doctrine or No Logo. People who are sitting out for whatever reasons.”

Klein admits that even with her reputation for producing brainy economic analysis, and a crack research team to which she gives generous credit in the book and in conversation, it took three years of “marinating” in the material. “I have amazing research help. Basically what I spend my money on is research,” she says. “The way in which people talk about climate is just so wonky and so abstract and such a boys’ club that it makes a lot of women just roll their eyes or feel that they are somehow not qualified,” she says. “I certainly had to fight that feeling in myself in order to write about it.”

The idea of writing about climate change took hold of Klein around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – legendary now as a failure of international diplomacy. The summit of world leaders, convening soon after the US had its first “green president” in Barack Obama, was supposed to put the major economies on a glide path to cutting emissions.

Klein came to the meeting planning to write about the great fight between rich and poor countries over the historic responsibility the US and Europe bore for causing climate change. She had dared to hope at one point that a climate deal would be the great equaliser – compensating Africa and Asia for colonialism. But the summit collapsed under the weight of those expectations. Leaders from Africa and small south Pacific Island states, which are slowly drowning under rising sea levels, wanted a more aggressive action that would limit the temperature rise to 1.5C; leaders from rich countries deemed the proposal bad for businesses and rejected it for fear it could cost them votes.

“I wasn’t prepared for the naming of that inaction by the industrialised world as racism,” Klein says. “I was struck by the fact that African delegates were using words such as genocide, describing a two-degree temperature target as allowing Africa to burn.” She pauses. “I found the Copenhagen experience pretty devastating.”

It was a difficult time for Klein personally as well. After the publication of Shock Doctrine, she was on the road for almost two years. She barely saw her husband. While she was travelling the world giving speeches and being hailed as an inspirational figure, Klein found herself in a rut. “I think I was profoundly depressed about 2008-2009,” she says. “I have always told myself that I would not spread hopelessness.” There are figures on the American left who just get up on stage and do these doom and apocalyptic presentations and it can be quite compelling. But I have seen it enough that I have told myself that if I ever get to that point, I will stay home.” She became convinced it was time to retreat, at least for a while. “I just didn’t feel that I had anything to offer, where I wasn’t just indulging my own despair.”

There were other difficulties. Klein writes in the book of the surprising realisation that she did want children after all, and of her struggles through what she calls the “fertility factory” and miscarriages before she finally became pregnant. Her son, Toma, turned two this summer. The book is dedicated to him. But as she was preparing for publication, Klein was diagnosed, and operated on, for thyroid cancer; she says flatly she will not discuss the illness beyond that.

For readers of Klein’s earlier works – or of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality – the central message of the book will sound familiar. Capitalism, since it was unshackled by the deregulation of the 1980s, has widened the gap between rich and poor. The top 3% held 55% of all wealth last year, up from 45% in 1989. The bottom 90% controlled 24.7% of wealth, according to statistics released this month by the Federal Reserve.

“It is not like everything is fine except for the problem that the temperature is going up a little bit,” Klein says. “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”

Klein believes the gap between the 1% and everyone else and the powerlessness of local governments to take control are casualties of global capital. To follow the course of action she prescribes would require a hostile takeover of large parts of the environmental movement. But that would be entirely warranted, it seems. Environmental groups have wasted time trying to recruit big business and billionaires to adopt pro-climate measures, she says. In the meantime, economies have continued to spew out carbon pollution, making a climate fix far more difficult.

“We need an ideological battle. It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.” To Klein, environmentalists should have just gone to war on business, and on the whole concept of capitalism.

In a devastating chapter, she details how the US’s biggest environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, earned money from oil and gas drilling on a parcel of Texas land it had set aside for conservation. She writes about the nightmarish scenarios surrounding geoengineering, or hacking the planet, by spraying seawater into the sky to create cloud cover, or simulating a volcanic eruption to fill the lower atmosphere with ash.

Elsewhere, Klein takes on Richard Branson for failing to live up to his promise to set aside $3bn to fight climate change. “So much hope was put in this parade of billionaires to try and reconcile capitalism with climate,” she says. “When Branson entered the climate game, he posited it specifically as an alternative to regulation. He said ‘the governments aren’t going to do this, we’re going to do this. Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together.’” She remains irritated. “That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”

In truth, Klein is vague in her book and our conversation about exactly how this would come about. In the book she talks about “an effervescent moment” – when popular protests converge to bring about real change – which comes after a section in the book titled “Magical Thinking”. There is a curious failure to really get to grips with questions about a real-world solution – Klein must have anticipated being asked. Especially given that she has often been acutely focused on what popular movements need to do to bring about concrete change; her message to Occupy, for instance, was that the movement needed to impose clear structures and institutions. If capitalism is going to destroy the world, why wouldn’t capitalism fix itself – if only for its own survival?

“I don’t know if capitalism wants anything. The system itself doesn’t think as an entity – it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.” Asked why Obama is such a peripheral figure in her book, Klein is ambiguous. “I do think Obama is interesting but more in the sense of an absence,” she says. “Obama should have used the economic bailout of 2009 to impose new rules on car companies,” she says. (In fact, Obama used the bailout to spend up to $100bn on home retrofits, subways, and other climate-friendly measures. Klein overlooks these entirely.) “The fact that Obama blew that moment, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our times.”

The fix she proposes broadly relies on scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. Klein admits that most environmental groups are too white, male, and middle class to connect with women, African-Americans, Latinos and the poor who will bear the brunt of climate change. She recalls that in their first manifestos, the Occupy protesters never even mentioned global warming.

Klein is on the board of one of those emerging grassroots groups: 350.orghas played a lead role in reframing a mundane pipeline project, the Keystone XL, until it was seen as one of the most critical environmental decisions of Obama’s presidency. The Keystone XL project, meant to transport tar sands crude from the vast Alberta tar sands, would probably be well on its way to completion, if the protests by and Nebraska landowners had not made the project a national issue. Obama has repeatedly put off making a decision about the pipeline. But the deciding factor in that delay was almost certainly the wealthy Democratic donors pushing behind the scenes, and threatening to cut off election funding.

Even so, Klein continues to sees the Keystone fight, widespread local protests against fracking and campus divestment campaigns as the way forward on climate change. She argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much, giving the examples of Toronto’s impressive carbon-cutting efforts. “It’s been kind of disastrous,” she says. “While we are all doing these green things, our country’s emissions are soaring because of the tar sands. People start feeling kind of like jerks. We are just sort of like suckers.”

She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.

Those are fighting words. Over the past few years, the oil and coal lobbies and, increasingly, super-rich ultra-conservatives in America have spent close to $1bn a year building a network of rightwing organisations that have blocked efforts to cut the emissions that cause climate change – often by claiming that climate change is not even happening. More than half of the Republicans elected to Congress now deny the existence of climate change.

There are already signs of a pushback on Twitter from some environmental bloggers, even before the book’s release. But Klein – who over the years has endured pro-corporate backlash of her two earlier books and a ferocious assault for criticising Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians, says she is ready for it. “I think I have been through attacks that are far more personal and far more intense than what I am going to experience with this book.”

She says she sees a new breed of climate activist, ready to go after corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. “They are going after the fossil fuel companies directly as opposed to just trying to go into business with them and gently cajole them into doing the right thing,” she says.

At the same time she argues there has been a shift in attitudes about how people treat one another.

“I am not in despair. I am excited by what I am seeing. I think that the task is enormous. I think we are nowhere close to where we need to be, but I think we are on a track. There is a track,” she says.

• This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane on 16 September.

Link: Reading Upward

Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro on a kind of neo-Platonic stairway?

“Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.”

How many times have we heard this opinion expressed? On this occasion the speaker was a literary critic on Canadian radio with whom I was discussing my recent blog post “Reading: The Struggle.” Needless to say the sentiment comes along with the regret that people are reading less and less these days and the notion of a hierarchy of writing with the likes of Joyce and Nabokov at the top and Fifty Shades of Grey at the bottom. Between the two it is assumed that there is a kind of neo-Platonic stairway, such that from the bottom one can pass by stages to the top, a sort of optimistic inversion of the lament that soft porn will lead you to hard and anyone smoking marijuana is irredeemably destined to descend through coke and crack to heroin. The user, that is, is always drawn to a more intense form of the same species of experience.

Of course, while the fear that one will descend from soft to hard drugs tends to be treated as a near certainty, the hope that one might ascend from Hermione Granger to Clarissa Dalloway is usually expressed as a tentative wish. Nevertheless, it serves to justify the intellectual’s saying, “Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, etc.” (as if this were some kind of concession), and underwrites our cautious optimism when we see an adolescent son or daughter immersed in George R.R. Martin. It’s not Dostoevsky, but one day it might be, and in any event it’s better than a computer game or TV since these are not part of the reading stairway.

Is any of this borne out by reality? Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro? (Through how many intermediate steps? Never to return?) And if it is not true why does a certain kind of intellectual continue to express them? To what end?

In 1948 W.H. Auden published an essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” on what he calls his “addiction” to detective novels. The point he makes is that these schematic narratives serve the escapist needs of readers who share his particular psychological make-up. These people will not, as a rule, Auden claims, with some elaborate argument, be the same readers as readers of light romances or thrillers, or fantasy fiction. Each genre has its pull on different types of minds. In any event, if he, Auden, is to get any serious work done, he has to make sure that there are no detective novels around, since if there are he can’t resist opening them, and if he opens them he won’t close them till he’s reached the end. Or rather, no new detective novels; for Auden notes this difference between the stuff of his addiction and literature: that the detective novel is no sooner read than forgotten and never invites a second reading, as literature often does.

The implications are clear enough. Auden denies any continuity between literary novels and genre novels, or indeed between the different genres. One does not pass from lower to higher. On the contrary one might perfectly well fall from the higher to the lower, or simply read both, as many people eat both good food and junk food, the only problem being that the latter can be addictive; by constantly repeating the same gratifying formula (the litmus test of genre fiction) it stimulates and satisfies a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare. (My one powerful experience of this was a spell reading Simenon’s Maigret novels; after five or six it gets harder and harder to distinguish one from another, and yet one goes on.)

Auden, it should be noted, does not propose to stop reading detective novels—he continues to enjoy them—and expresses no regret that people read detective novels rather than, say, Faulkner or Charlotte Brontë, nor any wish that they use detective novels as a stepping stone to “higher things.” He simply notes that he has to struggle to control his addiction, presumably because he doesn’t want to remain trapped in a repetitive pattern of experience that allows no growth and takes him nowhere. His essay, in fact, reads like the reasoning of someone determined to explain to himself why he must not waste too much time with detective novels, and at the same time to forgive himself for the time he does spend with them. If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.

I’m forced to pause here to admit the objection that much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.

So do people pass from the genre to the literary up our neo-Platonic ladder? Do they discover Stieg Larsson and move on to Pamuk? With no studies or statistics available to settle the question—at least I have not come across any—I can only resort to anecdotal evidence, as a father of three and a university teacher for many years. And the first thing to say is that no one has ever spoken to me of making this progression. My children all enjoyed listening to the classic canon of children’s stories in their infancy, but this did not automatically lead to “serious reading” later on, despite, or quite possibly because of, their parents’ highly developed reading habit. My son spent his adolescence switching back and forth between computer games and compulsive rereadings of The Lord of the Rings, equally happy with both forms of entertainment. Later, he gathered together complete collections of Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell. When I have suggested trying the work of certain novelists I like—Coetzee, Moravia—his complaint is invariably that they are too disturbing and too close to home. My eldest daughter oscillates between pulp fiction and literary fiction with the greatest of ease, perfectly aware of the entirely different pleasures they offer. My youngest daughter pursues vast fantasy chronicles and seems entirely happy with them; they have never prompted her to consider opening any of the more literary works our bookshelves are stacked with. In fact she reads fantasy chronicles because they are not to be found on the family bookshelves and offer a distinctly different experience from literary fiction. She does not want, she says, to be troubled with the kind of realities she sees quite enough of. She likes the costumed world of bold exploits and special powers.

When I speak to my students, what is most striking is that the majority of them, who are content on a diet made up exclusively of genre fiction, simply do not perceive any difference in kind between these and literary works; they do not see the essentially conservative nature of the one and the exploratory nature of the other. They register no need to widen their reading experiences. Often they propose theses on genre works of no distinction whatsoever, unable to understand why their teachers might put these in a different category from, say, Doris Lessing or D.H. Lawrence.

If we assume, then, for the sake of argument and in the absence of persuasive information to the contrary, that narratives do not form a continuum such that one is naturally led from the simpler to the more complex, but offer quite different experiences that mesh with readers’ psyches and requirements in quite different ways, why do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue?

It’s evident that publishers have a commercial interest in the comforting notion that any reading is better than none. They can feel virtuous selling a hundred million copies of Fifty Shades, strong in the hope that at least some of those folks might move on to Pulitzer and Nobel winners, and perhaps eventually to some of the more obscure and adventurous writers in their stables — just as, in Fifty Shades itself, the heroine Anastasia can indulge in a little S&M as part of a project to lead Christian Grey out of his perversion and on to the joys of the missionary position in conventional wedlock. It’s always a relief to have reasons for supposing that what one is doing might have a bit more to it than the merest self-interest.

At a deeper level, there is a desire to believe in an educational process that puts the intellectual in a pastoral relationship to an ingenuous public who must be coaxed in a positive direction; that is, the notion of this pathway upward from pulp to Proust allows for the figure of the benign educator who takes the hands of blinkered readers and leads them from the stable to the stars, as the Italians say. It’s good to posit a scheme of things in which possibly obsolete skills like close reading and critical analysis in fact have an important social role.

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Link: Being a Better Online Reader

The science of why (at least for now) we absorb and understand less when we read digitally instead of in print.

Soon after Maryanne Wolf published “Proust and the Squid,” a history of the science and the development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century, she began to receive letters from readers. Hundreds of them. While the backgrounds of the writers varied, a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand. There were the architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite. There were the neurosurgeons who worried about the “cut-and-paste chart mentality” that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case. And there were, of course, the English teachers who lamented that no one wanted to read Henry James anymore. As the letters continued to pour in, Wolf experienced a growing realization: in the seven years it had taken her to research and write her account, reading had changed profoundly—and the ramifications could be felt far beyond English departments and libraries. She called the rude awakening her “Rip van Winkle moment,” and decided that it was important enough to warrant another book. What was going on with these students and professionals? Was the digital format to blame for their superficial approaches, or was something else at work?

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers. Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some say it’s like they haven’t read anything properly if they’ve read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,” she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn’t have the same tangibility.

In new research that she and her colleagues will present for the first time at the upcoming conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, in Torino, Italy, Mangen is finding that that may indeed be the case. She, along with her frequent collaborator Jean-Luc Velay, Pascal Robinet, and Gerard Olivier, had students read a short story—Elizabeth George’s “Lusting for Jenny, Inverted” (their version, a French translation, was called “Jenny, Mon Amour”)—in one of two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical—Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page—but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

Wolf’s concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the “sophisticated comprehension processes,” as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

Of course, as Wolf is quick to point out, there’s still no longitudinal data about digital reading. As she put it, “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension.” And it’s quite possible that the apprehension is misplaced: perhaps digital reading isn’t worse so much as different than print reading. Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. (Interestingly, Cairo found that gamers were often better online readers: they were more comfortable in the medium and better able to stay on task.) In a study comparing digital and print comprehension of a short nonfiction text, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith found that students fared equally well on a post-reading multiple-choice test when they were given a fixed amount of time to read, but that their digital performance plummeted when they had to regulate their time themselves. The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.

Last year, Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that multitasking while reading on a computer or a tablet slowed readers down, but their comprehension remained unaffected. What did suffer was the quality of a subsequent report that they wrote to synthesize their reading: if they read the original texts on paper or a computer with no Internet access, their end product was superior to that of their Internet-enabled counterparts. If the online readers took notes on paper, however, the negative effects of Internet access were significantly reduced. It wasn’t the screen that disrupted the fuller synthesis of deep reading; it was the allure of multitasking on the Internet and a failure to properly mitigate its impact.

Indeed, some data suggest that, in certain environments and on certain types of tasks, we can read equally well in any format. As far back as 1988, the University College of Swansea psychologists David Oborne and Doreen Holton compared text comprehension for reading on different screens and paper formats (dark characters on a light background, or light characters on a dark background), and found no differences in speed and comprehension between the four conditions. Their subjects, of course, didn’t have the Internet to distract them. In 2011, Annette Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, similarly found that students performed equally well on a twenty-question multiple-choice comprehension test whether they had read a chapter on-screen or on paper. Given a second test one week later, the two groups’ performances were still indistinguishable. And it’s not just reading. Last year, Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai found no difference in accuracy between students who edited a six-hundred-word paper on the screen and those who worked on paper. Those who edited on-screen did so faster, but their performance didn’t suffer.

We need to be aware of the effects of deeper digital immersion, Wolf says, but we should be equally cautious when we draw causal arrows or place blame without adequate longitudinal research. “I’m both the Cassandra and the advocate of digital reading,” she says. Maybe her letter writers’ students weren’t victims of digitization so much as victims of insufficient training—and insufficient care—in the tools of managing a shifting landscape of reading and thinking. Deep-reading skills, Wolf points out, may not be emphasized in schools that conform to the Common Core, for instance, and need to meet certain test-taking reading targets that emphasize gist at the expense of depth. “Physical, tangible books give children a lot of time,” she says. “And the digital milieu speeds everything up. So we need to do things much more slowly and gradually than we are.” Not only should digital reading be introduced more slowly into the curriculum; it also should be integrated with the more immersive reading skills that deeper comprehension requires.

Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how. Wolf is now working on digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading, to use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes. “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment,” she says. “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Wolf has decided that, despite all of her training in deep reading, she, too, needs some outside help. To finish her book, she has ensconced herself in a small village in France with shaky mobile reception and shakier Internet. Faced with the endless distraction of the digital world, she has chosen to tune out just a bit of it. She’s not going backward; she’s merely adapting.

strangeopus replied to your post “What I’ve read this year”

If you had to suggest 3 of these to someone who appears to be interested in things similar to you, which would you suggest? (I need more books to read)

Well, I like to read about a lot of different things so it is hard to answer this question without knowing about your preferences, but I’ll try (not in order, and more than 3, sorry): 

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

This is one of the few books I love to return to. It’s a difficult book to describe: there is no plot, the chapters are usually very short and fragmented (the writings were found and assembled after Pessoa’s death), and it’s some kind of “factless autobiography.” It’s basically a collection of small vignettes and reflections on life, loneliness, love, friendship, social interactions, and so on. The prose is beautiful, poetic, and very melancholic. If you’re an introvert, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. I’ve posted a few excerpts in the past if you want to check it out:

Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

This one is not an easy read for some people, but it’s written in aphoristic form so it is easy to re-read a passage if you need to understand it better. It critiques the effects of advertising, the media, and the consumerist society in general on individuals and social relations. It was written over 30 years ago, but it’s more relevant today than ever before, and it will change the way you see things.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

One of my favorite novel. It’s a mix of story-telling and philosophical speculations about love, relationships, and the meaning of life. It’s set around the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and you follow four different characters whose lives are intertwined. One thing I really liked is the fact that the narrator often talks directly to the reader about philosophy, introducing concepts that relate to the story, life in general, or just talk about the characters themselves. It creates some kind of intimate relationship between you, the narrator, and the characters. It’s a wonderful and thought provoking read. I never wanted it to end. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

This is one of the most fascinating and disturbing book I’ve ever read. It tells the true story of a family of four that was murdered by two young men in Kansas in 1959. It reconstructs the lives/psychologies of the murderers and their victims, the murder itself, the investigation that led to the capture, the trial, and execution of the killers. It’s a disturbing, but the writing is absolutely wonderful and very captivating. A true crime masterpiece.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here’s why you should read it:

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

I grew up in France and I never learned about native Americans in school so I started reading a few books about this history when I moved to North America, and this is one of my favorite. It focuses on the Indian Wars of the American West throughout the 19th century. It’s very sad, but it’s a must read, especially if you live in NA.

The Fall by Albert Camus

I love Camus, and this is one of his best work. It’s a short read but it’s deep and hilarious at the same time, and it gets better with each re-reading. It is a series of monologues by an ex-lawyer you meet in a bar in Amsterdam who tells you his life story, and reflects on the absurdities of life and society. 

These books are not necessarily the best books I’ve read, but I enjoyed them a lot and they’re pretty accessible and relatively short, so I like to recommend them. Anyway, I hope this answers your question, and if you’re looking for something more specific, let me know. You can also find me on Goodreads. :)

What I’ve read this year

Bold = books I enjoyed the most

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rüdiger Safranski
Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution by Roy Bainton
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay) by Emil Cioran
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Québert by Joël Dicker
The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee 
In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Key Kesey
Homosexuality & Civilization by Louis Crompton
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
À la recherche du temps perdu: Du coté de chez Swann (In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way) by Marcel Proust
The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
Consuming Life by Zygmund Bauman
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
Tu montreras ma tête au peuple by Francois-Henri Désérable
The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee
Everything was Forever, Until it was No More by Alexei Yurchak
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
How Shall I Live my Life? by Derrick Jensen
Madness: a Very Short Introduction by Andrew T. Scull
Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery
Marx for Beginners by Rius
Ecology & Socialism by Chris Williams
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno
Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr

Sanctuaire 1/2/3 by Xavier Dorison
Tintin 1/2/3/4/5 by Hergé
The Walking Dead Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman

Link: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Literature

In order to guide English-speakers towards the authors best suited for specific tastes, has put together an exclusive guide offering historical context and tailor-made recommendations.

Polish literature, from its sheer quantity and innovative quality, undoubtedly deserves a place alongside the greatest, yet it has remained significantly less mainstream than its Russian or French counterparts, perhaps on account of the language barrier. However, outstanding translations of classics and contemporary successes have been steadily appearing over the last few years, offering book lovers a newfound chance to discover hidden treasures.  Simply select the statement that applies best, and you will be redirected to the information you need to take to your local bookstore.

Where did it all begin?

The earliest pieces of literature in the Polish language emerged in the 14th century.  Of these early works – which developed a literary tradition outside that of the works being written in Latin –Bogurodzica, a hymn invoking the Mother of God, is most significant. 

With the relative political stability that resulted from the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the nation saw increasing opportunities for contact with the rest of Europe.  16th Century Polish arts reflect the impact of the Renaissance – particularly the influence of Italian artists and writers.  The oeuvre of Jan Kochanowski honed the poetic language integral to later Polish literature and stands as an exemplar of the pinnacle of Polish Renaissance literature.  Kochanowski’sLaments – written after the death of his daughter, Urszula – stand out in his diverse and prolific work as a piece of enduringly beautiful and heartbreaking verse. 

Poland remained engaged with the arts of Europe and followed its cultural trajectoy through the Baroque and Enlightenment. 

Romanticism sets the tone for what’s to come…

The first half of the 19th century saw Poland largely reject Enlightenment values of the previous generation and embrace a Romantic spirit, in both literature and political action.  The spirit of Romanticism has proven to have an enduring effect on Polish thought, and the greatest name of the period – Adam Mickiewicz – retains a prominent place in contemporary Polish culture.  As “the bard of Poland,” Mickiewicz might be likened to Pushkin, Byron, Goethe, or Shevchenko.  The opening lines of Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, a novel in verse, can be recited by many Poles; and the work – set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars – is a Polish national epic.  His drama Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) refers to Slavic pagan tradition and is a fascinating example of Romanticism’s engagement with mysticism and the Absolute.

Mickiewicz and his contemporaries, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, have become known as poet-prophets (wieszcze), as their work elevated the reflection of Poland’s political struggles to a spiritual plane.

If you like vast, historical epics…

The literary scene at the turn of the 19th century produced two masters of the novel.  The work of both Henryk Sienkiewicz and Bolesław Prus turned toward historical detail and clear, accessible prose.

Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, Sienkiewicz is best known for Quo Vadis and hisTrilogy – comprised of With Fire and SwordThe Deluge, and Fire on the Steppe.  The Trilogy is set in the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while Quo Vadis takes place in Nero’s Rome.  Sienkiewicz’s work – filled with adventure and acts of heroism – is often cited as having played a vital role in preserving Polish national spirit in the era of partition. 

Eschewing Sienkiewicz’s dramatic portrays of historical struggles, the literary worlds of Prus’s fiction are remarkable in their accuracy – both of tone and geography.  Those who enjoy the social realism of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will appreciate Prus’s masterpiece, The Doll, which brilliantly presents a vision of late 19th century society in Warsaw.  Prus’s innovative variation in narrative perspective and tone were unmatched in his time and are not to be missed.

“Young Poland” at the dawn of the 20th Century

In the first decades of the 20th century, Poland’s arts flourished in the era of “Young Poland.”  The literature of this period developed through a number of stages and produced great works byStanisław Przybyszewski, Leopold Staff, Bolesław Leśmian, and Stefan Żeromski.

In this period Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding stands out as an essential work of the period.  The symbolist drama – densely packed with allusions to Polish history and culture – tells the story of a wedding that brings together not only peasants and urban intelligentsia, but also a host of spirits and ghosts.  Ultimately a critique of both political stagnation and earlier theories of “art for art’s sake,” this rich drama remains one of the most influential works in Polish literature.

Searching for Direction in the Interwar Years

Having regained independence in 1918, interests in Poland found themselves at odds regarding the future of the nation.  Similarly, the interwar period in literature is characterized by diversity in aesthesis and influences.  Zofia Nałkowska’s The Romance of Theresa Hennert offers an illuminating picture of the conflicting perspectives and personalities looking to shape the identity of the newly independent nation. 

The futurist movement that developed across Europe in the 1920s found its way to Poland in the works Bruno Jasieński and Aleksander Wat.  Those who enjoy the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti or Vladimir Mayakovsky of Russia will delight in the Polish take on this dynamic and urban style.  Rejecting tradition and embracing a technological future, Polish futurists envisioned a Poland radically divorced from its past.  Though Wat’s work later moved away from futurism, his 1927Lucifer Unemployed is a biting and darkly comic take on a changing world in which Lucifer finds a career in cinema – having otherwise found himself superfluous in atheistic modern society.

In contrast to the futurists’ radical break from the past, poets associated with the Skamander group looked back to classical images and traditional literary forms.  Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Julian Tuwim were among the founders of the Skamander group, and their poetry of the time endures in its simple beauty and accessibility. 

Looking for Something Both Brilliant and Strange?

Alongside the diverse literary schools of the interwar, there emerged three authors who defy labels.  These “great innovators” – Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz – addressed issues of form and social relations, though each approached their subjects in very different ways. 

Witkacy’s dramas – both brilliant and bizarre – are considered a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd associated with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.  His work often engaged with the desire to break free from social conventions and expectations.  His The Madman and the Nun is a play in which character types – more so that actual characters – come together in an asylum.  Though it is the poet character who is committed to the institution, Witkacy explores how the ideologies underlining the actions of all the characters (psychoanalysis, scientific positivism, etc.) are their own kind of madness.  Witkacy’s The Shoemakers offers an allegorical look at conflicting political ideologies of the time as a fascist, a communist, and an aristocrat are pitted against one another. 

Learn more about Witkacy here

Like Witkacy, Gombrowicz explored the relationship of the individual with the various “masks” offered by social relations.  His Ferdydurke is a brilliant satire of the simultaneous desires for individuality and belonging – presented through the story of a man who wakes to find himself returned to his days as a schoolboy.  The convoluted Cosmos details one man’s search for meaning in a seemingly random series of events and observations.  In this engaging and unsettling novel, as his protagonist begins to form increasingly unexpected associations within his environment, Gombrowicz lays bare the absurdity in our search for meaning and connection. 

The poetic beauty of the worlds Schulz creates in his stories is the basis for his meditations on the relationship of physical reality to a metaphysical universal.  His tales of inaccessible time and lost homes exist in the interaction between imagination and experience.  Though his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered during the Nazi occupation of his hometown of Drohobycz, the collections he left behind – Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and Street of Crocodiles– remain and are not to be missed.

If you’re interested in the Polish experience of, and response to, WWII, consider…

As a central battleground of the Second World War, Poland – and her literature – was deeply affected by the trauma of the war.  The literature of the period and the years that followed address the experience of a people whose country not only was invaded from both sides, but also was to become the territory in which the Nazis carried out their genocidal policies. 

A member of the Polish underground, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  The poetry he left behind expresses the fears and passions of a young man facing an uncertain and violent future.   Poets Anna Świrszczyńska, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Miron Białoszewski survived the Warsaw Uprising, and their work reflects the trauma of the event in various ways.  Białoszewski spent much of his life after the war writing and editing a memoir of the Uprising.  In his A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, he looks to strip his memories of a retrospectively imposed narrative thread, instead presenting a densely detailed account of life in the besieged city. 

Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen offers a brutal portrait of life in Auschwitz.  Himself a survivor of the camp, Borowski’s frank prose and clipped details present the world in which kindness is shocking and no one is a hero.  Also addressing the horrors of Nazi policy,Nałkowska’s Medallions, published shortly after the war, is a collection of short stories assembled around chilling accounts Nałkowska collected as part of an investigative committee on Nazi war crimes. 

More recently, a new generation of Poles – whose experience of the war comes only through the memories of others – has addressed the legacy of trauma in their work.  Marek Bieńczyk’s Tworki, set in a psychiatric hospital near Warsaw, explores the relationship between memory and imagination as the musings of the contemporary narrator meld with a narrative of life in occupied Poland.  Piotr Paziński also confronts echoes of the past in his two novels, Pensjonat and Ptasie ulice.  Paziński’s is a world of spirits – both a poignant meditation on loss and a carefully crafted celebration of the vanishing language of Poland’s Jewish population.

Looking for something a little lighter? 

Amongst the rather dark literature that emerged out of a Poland that endured the Nazi occupation only to find itself under the shadow of Soviet power, there remain examples of delightfully quirky and darkly comic fiction. 

Lovers of science fiction will delight in the works of Stanisław Lem, whose novels and collections of stories include SolarisThe Star Diaries, and The Cyberiad.  Though in his stories Lem’s characters often find themselves confronted with beings and settings alien to them, there is simultaneously a feeling that these worlds are grounded in reality.  His work is as much philosophy as it is science fiction.   Lem’s playful and inventive use of language, along with his thoughtful and engaging narratives, make him a great choice both for those looking for a charming adventure and absurd humor, as well as readers searching for a creative philosophy of encounter with an other.

Sławomir Mrożek similarly used his writing creatively to comment on contemporary social conditions.  His 1957 collection of short stories, Elephant, offers a satire of life in communist Poland.  He highlights the absurdity of the authorities and conditions of life in what Spectator describes as “brief fables…something like Kafka’s stories, but funnier.”  Mrożek’s drama Tangoreturns to some of the themes of Witkacy’s The Shoemakers, though his work grounds the political conflict within a story of familial dysfunction. A joy to read, Mrożek’s prose can be enjoyed both as immensely humorous tales, as well as texts that illuminate the environment in which they were composed.

If you’re only going to know a few names, know these…

No survey of Polish literature would be complete without the three most prominent Polish poets of the 20th century – Czesław MiłoszWisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert.  Easily the most recognized name of Polish letters around the world, Miłosz’s rich and philosophical poetry vividly reflects upon the spiritual and scientific in the world around him.   Also a gifted and prolific scholar, translator, and prose writer, the collected essays in his 1953 The Captive Mind remain a classic of literature on totalitarianism, and his The History of Polish Literature was invaluable in fostering an awareness of Polish literature in the English speaking world.  Szymborska, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, might well be understood as a poet of scale.  Her work frequently approaches the particularity of its subject from a macro level or zooms out to reveal the vastness of one’s environment.  Herbert’s cerebral verse is deeply engaged in questions of ethics and history; it is both moral and ironic. 

Born after WWII, a “New Wave” of Polish poets found prominence in the late 1960s.  Of this “Generation of ’68,” the work Adam Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak is of particular note.  Both poets masterfully represent social reality with clear language and a dose of irony.  Along with their collections of poetry, Zagajewski and Barańczak have published collections of essays and criticism.  Barańczak’s 1990 Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays offers a particular engaging examination of the experience of the Polish writer in exile and the transformations that were shaping Eastern Europe.

Looking to get a sense of the diverse voices of contemporary Polish literature? Check out…

For those interested in Poland’s future, there are perhaps few better signs of her promise than the thriving and diverse creativity on display in contemporary literature.  Though the world of contemporary Polish literature is vast, the follow are but a few of the outstanding artists whose work has found acclaim in translation. 

Andrzej Stasiuk’s stunning prose depicts the environment in the collapse of Communism.  His 1994Tales of Galicia captures the fading past and uncertain future of rural communities, while 2005’sOn the Road to Babadag details his journey through oft neglected “other Europe.”

Olga Tokarczuk, a gifted storyteller and stylist, is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of contemporary Polish literature.  Her 1996 novel, Primeval and Other Times, offers a microcosm of mankind steep in myth and psychological subtlety. 

Michał Witkowski’s Lovetown (2004) portrays both a transitional period from communism and the frequently overlooked subject of homosexuality with sharp wit and a keen ear for spoken language.

Dorota Masłowska burst onto the scene with the 2002 publication of Snow White and Russian Red.  A sort of Polish Trainspotting, the novel depicts the exploits of a group of aimless youth in pitch perfect narrative attuned to the rhythm and style of its protagonists.  Masłowska’s gift for capturing the language of the street  also is evident in her 2005 novel, The Queen’s Peacock, which employs a hip-hop idiom to cast a critical lens on media and pop culture. 

Currently Reading:

Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca

Comforting terms such as “sustainable development” and “green production” frame environmental debate by stressing technology (not green enough), economic growth (not enough in the right places), and population (too large). Concern about consumption emerges, if at all, in benign ways—as calls for green purchasing or more recycling, or for small changes in production processes. Many academics, policymakers, and journalists, in fact, accept the economists’ view of consumption as nothing less than the purpose of the economy. Yet many people have a troubled, intuitive understanding that tinkering at the margins of production and purchasing will not put society on an ecologically and socially sustainable path.

Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing “the consumption problem” and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In Part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy, emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, “ad-busting,” and product certification. Together, the chapters propose “cautious consuming” and “better producing” as an activist and policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving focus of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Whether she is contemplating the history of walking as a cultural and political experience over the past two hundred years (Wanderlust), or using the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a lens to discuss the transformations of space and time in late nineteenth-century America (River of Shadows), Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

Link: The Books We’ve Lost

Used-book stores are disappearing in our day at an even greater rate than regular book stores. Until ten years ago or so, there used to be a good number of them in every city and even in some smaller towns, catering to a clientele of book lovers who paid them a visit in search of some rare or out-of-print book, or merely to pass the time poking around. Even in their heyday, how their owners made a living was always a puzzle to me, since typically their infrequent customers bought nothing, or very little, and when they did, their purchase didn’t amount to more than a few dollars. Years ago, in a store in New York that specialized in Alchemy, Eastern Religions, Theosophy, Mysticism, Magic, and Witchcraft, I remember coming across a book called How to Become Invisible that I realized would make a perfect birthday present for a friend who was on the run from a collection agency trying to repossess his car. It cost fifteen cents, which struck me as a pretty steep price considering the quality of the contents.

What made these stores, stocked with unwanted libraries of dead people, attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure. Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins. How delightful to find some unknown reader commenting in pencil on a Victorian love poem: “Shit,” or coming across this inscription in a beautiful edition of one of the French classics:

For my daughter,
make beauty, humanity and wisdom
your lifelong objectives; and in all circumstances
you will know what to do. Happiness will be
the reward for your efforts.

One would either restore the volume on the shelf, or continue lingering over it and delaying the verdict. Of course, every now and then, there would come along some trashy book that one could not resist having, like the biography of Rudolph Valentino, the silent movie heartthrob, I bought last fall, which advertised itself as the sensational, never-before-published truth about the most fiery sex god of our time, and promised to reveal why his first wife left him before dawn on their wedding night.

However, other times there’d be a book I’d start reading and couldn’t put down. Here, for example, is the opening of one called Business be Damned—not a very promising title—by someone called Elijah Jordan, published in 1952 by Henry Schuman, New York, and presented at some unknown date to the library of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas by its original owner, Dr. Joe Colwell, and subsequently removed from their collection:

There have always been businessmen and business in the world. But never in history till today was business accepted as a morally honorable activity for men; never before was the businessman permitted to dominate the affairs of men. Today the rule of the businessman, accepted, justified and glorified, has become undisputed and absolute.
Until lately, however, the activity of the businessman has always been questioned as to its moral rightness. The formulation of this doubt has been the negative or critical premise upon which every developed moral system and every cultured religious system has been founded. The new fact, therefore, in what is called modern civilization, is the acceptance of business activity as morally honorable, the approval of the capacities and the characteristics of the businessman, and the assumption that these capacities are appropriate for rule and control of human affairs.

This is extraordinary, I said to myself. Jordan (1875-1953), who was a professor of philosophy at Butler University for many years, saw the writing on the wall, pointing out already back then that business had become the dominant force in our lives with all other human interests in this country subservient to it. Religion, politics, government, morality, art were all being asked to acknowledge its absolute right and absolute power to be the final arbiter.

If he came back from the dead today, Jordan would be surprised that his fellow Americans still haven’t caught on that they are being taken to the cleaners. On the contrary, many of them now believe that the solution to all our problems, be it failing schools or expensive healthcare, is to hand over every publicly run institution to profit-seeking private companies, which, thanks to their knowhow and the magic of the free market, will save tons of money for the tax payers. This is what is known as “privatization” today, the scam that makes everything from private prisons, the vast growth of our surveillance state, and our global military presence, a hugely lucrative enterprise. Voters, one can’t help but conclude, no longer seem to have any problem with fortunes acquired dishonestly and at their expense, some of them even going into huge debt to send their sons and daughters to prestigious business schools so they can go to work for these hucksters and emulate their success.

After the demise of used-book stores and libraries, what are the chances that someone will come across a book like Jordan’s? That there are others like him—a few known and others completely unknown—I have no doubt. Not that he and these other truth-tellers made much of an impression on their contemporaries, or on later generations of Americans who’d rather hear fairy tales about us being the envy of all creation, unique as a nation, a country of unlimited potential and opportunity, best in everything, rather than have some loser tell them otherwise. No wonder their books are doomed to perish in the coming years. The fate of these forgotten writers is a sad reminder that this will also happen to many serious works of philosophy, history, fiction, poetry, and all the other books collecting dust on their shelves. As long as they were there, some browser with plenty of time on her hands would have a chance to find a phrase, a bit of description or some little story in one of them, that enriches her life and does her soul good.

Link: Are eReaders Really Green?

In 2009, the Book Industry Environmental Council set a couple of environmental goals for the U.S. book industry. Using a calculation of the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 as its baseline, the BIEC and its members pledged to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 20% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. When the pledge was made, the Kindle had existed for only a year and a half, and the Nook was still eight months away. (Kobo eReaders and iPads didn’t emerge until 2010.) eBooks, still in their infancy, accounted for a measly 5% of books sold in America.

Today, it seems like many publishing houses are on their ways toward achieving the BIEC goals. Thanks to the proliferation of FTP software, most major publishing houses have slashed the amount of printing done in-office. At John Wiley & Sons, my production group had a paperless workflow: Adobe was our editing tool of choice, and to be one of our freelancers, you had to pass an exhaustive MS Word screening test. Later on, at Oxford University Press, a common email signature asked readers to “save paper and print only what’s necessary.” Organizing stacks of paper on your desk was out; navigating sub-folders on a shared drive was in.

Meanwhile eBooks were becoming ever more popular. By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week, and Apple said it had sold over 40 million iPads. Consequently, eBooks accounted for 31% of U.S. book sales by 2012. According to a Pew Internet study, as many as one in four American adults now own an eReader or tablet (one in three if they went to college). The trend toward digitization is undeniable, and there are many reasons to be optimistic: big publishers are making more money off of more products than ever before; it’s easier than ever to publish a book; and the number of books available to anyone with an internet connection is unprecedented. Some analysts even predict that soon print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files.

But is all of this really cutting the industry’s carbon footprint? Is total eBook adoption — that is: elimination of the print book — really an ecologically responsible goal?

Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. This is mostly due to an increasing global population. While America, Australia, India and the UK are the most rapid adopters of digital reading devices — at least for the time being — eBooks presently account for only a small fraction of the world book market. (This is due to factors such as availability of technology, reliable internet connections, and disposable income.)

Necessarily, the increased consumption of print and digital books has led to an ever-increasing demand for the materials required to create, transport, and store them. In the case of eBooks, though, vast amounts of materials are also necessary for the eReaders themselves, and this is something typically overlooked by proponents of digitization: the material costs are either ignored, or, more misleadingly, they’re classified as the byproduct of the tech industry instead of the book industry.

National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis recently posted a brief note of encouragement to owners of eReaders, and it illustrates exactly the type of oversight I just mentioned. “The steady rise of eBooks,” Tellis wrote, “should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits.” He went on to note how certain study groups have determined “that the carbon released from eBooks is offset after people read more than 14 eBooks” on a single eReader. But Tellis ignores the fact that global print book consumption is risingconcurrently with eBook consumption. In other words: the carbon footprint of the digital book industry is mostly growing in addition to, not to the detriment of, the growing carbon footprint of the print book industry.

I couldn’t locate the source of Tellis’ information about those 14 eBooks offsetting the ecological cost of their owner’s eReader. Instead, I found thisNew York Times op-ed which painted a starkly different picture: “the impact of one e-reader … equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” Still more damning, Ted Genoways’excellent VQR article about the raw materials needed for the production of eReaders (and other gizmos), found that:

At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books — not used or rare editions, 250 million new books — each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

[…] Things are trickier than they seem, too. The truth is that the dedicated eReader died almost as soon as it arrived, and it’s since been replaced by items even worse for the environment than its ancestors. What we presently refer to as eReaders are more like all-purpose tablets equipped with email clients, web browsers, games, movie players, and more. (Even one of the earliest generations of Kindles offered a prototype web browser — buried in subfolders within the device’s navigation system, though clearly a hint of what was coming.) As these devices become more sophisticated, they invite more prolonged usage, so those 2.5 g of emissions per hour of use continue to add up. Likewise, as these devices become more sophisticated, their manufacture demands more precious materials — often from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still more problematic is the fact that outdated devices are too often discarded inappropriately. You don’t need to investigate very hard to find evidence of the toll this mineral mining and e-waste dumping takes on fragile ecosystems.

The emissions and e-waste numbers could be stretched even further if I went down the resource rabbit hole to factor in: electricity needed at the Amazon and Apple data centers; communication infrastructure needed to transmit digital files across vast distances; the incessant need to recharge or replace the batteries of eReaders; the resources needed to recycle a digital device (compared to how easy it is to pulp or recycle a book); the packaging and physical mailing of digital devices; the need to replace a device when it breaks (instead of replacing a book when it’s lost); the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own eReading device (whereas print books can be loaned out as needed from a library); the fact that most digital devices are manufactured abroad (and therefore transported across oceans); and etc…

This is the ultimate result of our culture’s fetishization of technology — a problem which will assuredly worsen before it improves.

Link: The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

… If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel,” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Memory, however, is capricious and deeply unfair. It is why I can recall nothing about how a cell divides, or very little about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but can sing any number of television theme songs in the shower. (“Touch has a memory,” Keats wrote—but I can’t find my copy of his complete poems to test the theory, and, anyway, I found that quote on Goodreads.) The words that researchers use about forgetting are all psychically hurtful for the lay person: interference, confusion, decay—they seem sinister and remind us of all the sad limitations of the human brain, and of an inevitable march toward another kind of forgetting, which comes with age, and what may be final forgetting, which is death. Yet those same researchers are also quick to reassure us. Everybody forgets. And forgetting may even be a key to memory itself—a psychobiological necessity rather than a character flaw. That could be, but I still wish I could remember who did what to whom in D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love”—and the actual, rather than pompous and pretend, reasons why I’ve told people that I preferred “Sons and Lovers.” Or is it the other way around?

This may be a minor existential drama—and it might simply be resolved with practical application and a renewed sense of studiousness. There is ongoing dispute as to the ways in which memory might, in a general sense, be improvable. But certainly there are things that we can do to better remember the books we read—especially the ones that we want to remember (some novels, like some moments in life, are best forgotten).

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once. A professor I had in college would often, to the point of irony, cite Nabokov’s statement that there is no reading, only rereading. Yet he was teaching a class in modern fiction, and assigned books that are generally known as “slim” contemporary classics. They were short, and we were being tested on them—we’d be foolish to read them only once. I read them at least twice, and now remember them. But what about in real life, set loose from comprehension examinations and left mostly to our own devices and standards? Should we reread when there is a nearly endless shelf of books out there to read and a certainly not-endless amount of time in which to do it? Should I pull out my copy of Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” to relearn its charms—or more truthfully, learn them for the first time—or should I accept the loss, and move on?

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

Link: In Theory: The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books – and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry’s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs – (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads – devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train – at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover – or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” – and hence that of modern literature – as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

Link: A Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment.

In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he described it in his unfinished story Notes of a Madman (so titled because Tolstoy was convinced his readers would find the tale implausible), a few hours after midnight he awakened “seized by despair, fear and terror such as [he had] never before experienced.” After asking himself what there was to be afraid of, none other than Death himself answered, “I am here.” Tolstoy, confronting the inescapability of his own death, panicked and raged against its power.

That evening stayed with Tolstoy for the rest of his life; he became permanently preoccupied with mortality. Writing his Confessions a decade later, Tolstoy would ask: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” “He engaged in long and laborious meditations”, wrote Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, Sonya. “Often he said his brain hurt him, some painful process was going on inside it, everything was over for him, it was time for him to die.”

Tolstoy’s “Arzamas Horror”, as the Russian dramatist Maxim Gorky called it, also served as the basis for his masterful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this slim book, a 45-year-old Russian judge realizes he is dying and acknowledges that he has wasted his life attaining comfort and status. While outwardly appearing successful, Ilych suffers from an unhappy marriage, a meaningless career and a selfish existence. “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”, reads one typically devastating Tolstoyan line.

Melancholy as this is, the most harrowing parts of the story lie in Ilych’s terror at confronting his own mortality, much as Tolstoy had years earlier in the dark morning hours in Arzamas. Perhaps nowhere else in all of world literature is the sheer horror of the fact of death laid so bare: “He would go to his study, lie down, and again remain alone with it. Face to face with it, and there was nothing to be done with it. Only look at it and go cold.”

(Source: sunrec)

Link: The Culture of the Copy

On the printing press, the Internet & the impact of duplication.

Technological revolutions are far less obvious than political revolutions to the generations that live through them. This is true even as new tools, for better and worse, shift human history more than new regimes do. Innovations offer silent coups. We rarely appreciate the changes they bring until they are brought. Whether or not we become the primitives of a new culture, as the Futurist Umberto Boccioni observed, most of us still live behind the times and are content to do so. We expect the machines of the present to fulfill the needs of the past even as they deliver us into a future of unknowns.

World-changing inventions almost always create new roles rather than fill old ones. It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one? was the classic response to the telephone, variously attributed to Ulysses S. Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes but probably said by neither of them. Life-altering technologies often start as minor curiosities and evolve into major necessities with little reflection on how they reform our perceptions or even how they came to be.

In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke could see the significance of the French Revolution while observing its developments in real time. Yet “in the sixteenth century men had no clue to the nature and effects of the printed word,” writes Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, his 1962 book on the printing revolution and the dawning of the electronic age. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years on that Francis Bacon located the printing press alongside gunpowder and the compass as changing “the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Writing in his 1620 book Novum Organum (“New Instrument”), Bacon maintained that “no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo called the invention of printing the “greatest event in history” and the “mother of revolution.” Political revolution began in this technological upheaval.

An argument can be made, and so I will make it here, that the invention of the Internet is the under-recognized revolution of our time. The world-changing technology of the Internet, of course, is already apparent and barely needs retelling. The Internet is more significant than the telephone, the television, the transistor, or the personal computer because it subsumes all these prior inventions into a new accumulation that is greater than the sum of its parts. As the network of networks—the “inter-network”—the Internet is a revolution of revolutions.

Yet while we appreciate the Internet’s technological wonders, the cultural landscape it leads to is less explored. We acknowledge the Internet’s effect on information but are less considering of its influence on us. Even as we use its resources, most of us have no understanding of its mechanics or any notion of the ideas, powers, and people that led to its creation.

One way to situate the Internet is to see it as inaugurating the next stage of copy culture—the way we duplicate, spread, and store information—and to compare it to the print era we are leaving behind. New technologies in their early development often mimic the obsolete systems they are replacing, and the Internet has been no different. Terms like “ebook” and “online publishing” offer up approximations of print technology while revealing little of the new technology’s intrinsic nature.

Just as the written word changed the spoken word and the printed word changed the written word, so too will the digital word change the printed word, supplementing but not replacing the earlier forms of information technology. Speaking and writing both survived the print revolution, and print will survive the Internet revolution. The difference is that the Internet, with its ability to duplicate and transmit information to an infinite number of destinations, will increasingly influence the culture of the copy.