Adieu Zuckerman

There's that moment in Philip Roth's bleak 2007 novel, Exit Ghost, when old Nathan Zuckerman, the grand old man of American letters, returns to New York City. Zuckerman has been off the scene for ten years, self-exiled on a New Hampshire mountain. The 71 year-old novelist might be incontinent and impotent, but he's still retained all trademark mental acuity. Here's what struck him about New York City after his ten year absence:

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing -- the cell phones.... I'd rarely seen people striding the streets talking uninhibitely into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say -- so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said?' Everywere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone.

So what's the answer to Nathan Zuckerman's question? What is everyone talking about on their cellphones -- books, movies, music?

The New York Times' David Brooks has the answer -- it's what he calls the appearance of a new lord of the memes. Brooks explains today that "the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and as the marker of social status." And so "media" has taken the place of "culture" as the thing-in-itself, the indicator of status. We are in the iPhone age now. Books and movies and music don't matter anymore. They've been replaced by the technology of media.

And thus, to answer Zuckerman's question, everyone is talking on their phones about their phones.

Elizabeth Wurzel, the author of Prozac Nation, makes an identical point in today's Wall Street Journal. The "hegemony" of music and movies and books are over, she says:

Today there is far more excitement at the introduction of a new Apple product -- look at how people flocked to get their iPhones! -- than over anything artistic.

So what does all this mean for old Nathan Zuckerman, an artist who doesn't even own a cellphone? The old novelist, the closest thing to a fictional superstar in American letters, has become irrelevant. Zuckerman has been replaced by the Kindle. As Brooks explains:

Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel. The brain overshadows the mind. Design overshadows art.

As Wurzel concludes, sounding as bleak as Nathan Zuckerman, " the day the music dies, the party's over." She's right. Exit ghost. Welcome to the iPhone nation -- where the conversation is about the technology that enables the conversation. Adieu Zuckerman.