Doris Lessing, who published her first book in 1950, won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Her acceptance speech addressed the value of books, or rather their diminshed value in our internet-obsessed modern culture. While certain members of the technorati have poked fun at her for being old-fashioned, I think we ought to listen to her warnings, or find ourselves dumbed down.
The Guardian has her speech in its entirety, but here are a few key portions:
We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.
What has happened to us is an amazing invention – computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: “What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?” In the same way, we never thought to ask, “How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?”
Ouch. As a writer who has moved from producing poems, stories and essays to producing blog posts, this hits home. Of course, there is another side to the argument. The side where the internet is a place to share ideas. Many would argue the internet makes us smarter for that instanteous, worldwide sharing. I suppose it depends on how one utilizes the internet. If one’s time is absorbed in cultivating “friends” on MySpace and Facebook, one’s mind is likely not being enriched. On the other hand, if one uses the internet to seek out stories in The New Yorker or other more obscure but equally heady sites, then writers and intellectuals have every right to celebrate this new communications medium.
But what about the computer as composition tool? It’s a great word processor, but to think large and lovely thoughts, email, IM, iTunes and all other “distractions” must be disabled. I write blog posts with these apps running in the background, but the production of literature requires a deeper space.
Lessing has some thoughts on this too.
Writers are often asked: “How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?” But the essential question is: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.” If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”
I dream of that space. And wonder where it might be hiding. Is it inside my own house at five in the morning, before mundane but economically necessary work calls? Perhaps. But it doesn’t look like that in my dreams. In my dreams it looks like a cabin in the woods, or a repurposed guesthouse in the mountains. Wherever it is, I know where it’s not. It’s not inside the web of interlinked items, fascinating and otherwise.