Philip Roth and the Jaffa Cake eater

Philip_rothFor Philip Roth fans, I strongly recommend listening to Christopher Lydon's Memorial Day interview with the American writer broadcast on the excellent Open Source podcast show. Roth reads from Everyman, his new novel about a man obsessed with dying. And he described the seductive skills of his father, Herman, a man obsessed with life rather than death.

Lydon caught Roth is in sparkling form, both as an unabashed defender of high culture and as a literary highbrow. While Lydon didn't get Roth to polemicize about the digital revolution, he did tempt the old curmudgeon into railing against the contemporary "infantilisation" of American culture. To make his case, Roth described recently attending a poorly attended Emerson Quartet concert of Shostakovich works at Avery Fisher Hall. If people won't pay to hear the Emerson Quartet play late Shostakovich, Roth suggested, then the American Republic must really be in bad shape.

I couldn't help thinking of Roth and that half empty Avery Hall today while reading Leo Benedictus' Guardian Unlimited piece, about the meteoric popularity of YouTube. According to Benedictus, six million people watch 40 million videos each day on this new video sharing site. I wondered how Roth would make sense of these six million daily Internet viewers in the context of the Emerson's failure to sell out a small concert hall. And I wondered what Roth, that quintessential conservative modernist, would make of YouTube's radically postmodern "Broadcast Yourself" mantra.

Entitled "I told America how to eat Jaffa Cakes," Benedictus' article introduces us to some of the leading content makers on YouTube. There is Furches, the pastor from Witchita, who authors videos about wrestling. He tells us about John Elias from Miami who makes fetishistic videos about men's feet. Then there is Stephanie, the Malaysian dancer, who films herself in short skirts dancing to Ricky Martin and Britney Spears. Most memorably, Benedictus introduces us to Slayerette, the seventeen year old English woman who authored a popular video demonstrating to the world how to eat an English chocolate and marmalade sponge cookie called a Jaffa Cake.

Jaffa_cakes Slayerette's "JaffaCakes" video has been viewed 2,173 times on YouTube. I'm guessing that's a larger audience than attended the Emerson performance of the Shostakovich quartets at Avery Fisher Hall. There may well be a marketing lesson here for the Emerson Quartet. Perhaps they should post a video of themselves on YouTube playing Shostakovich while eating Jaffa Cakes. This will enable the Emersons to compete with Slayerette to win the attention of an online audience hungry for truly original content.

Notes from the resistance

Joining Kevin Kelly's utopian anti book crusade, Jeff Jarvis calls me a curmudgeon for defending the orthodoxy, power and tradition of the printed book.

He's right. I am, indeed, the most reactionary of conservatives. I think the book is one of the three finest inventions (with motion pictures and recorded music) of the last thousand years. And I'll defend the traditional book and the publishing industry until the last printing press has been shuttered.

Jarvis says the physical book is an "outmoded means of communicating information." He's wrong. The purpose of books is not to communicate information. Books are things to get lost in, to fall in love with, to be confused by. Books are not vehicles of utility, like computers or cell phones. They are not meant simply to transport us -- like knowledge commuters -- out of ignorance.

Jarvis lists his problems with books: "They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors."

But the value of books is that they are indeed frozen in time and are, thus, incorrect, inadequate and unfinished. Books are human in their frailty and ambivalence. My favorite books -- Hobbes' Leviathan, Sebald's Vertigo, De Lillo's White Noise, Dostoievski's Notes from the Underground, Calvino's Mr Palomar -- are such intimate companions because they contain as many questions are answers.

How would Jarvis suggest that Notes from the Underground be corrected or linked? Perhaps a kid with a My Space page could tell Dostoievski to chill. Or maybe a blogging sleuth could use Google maps to show that  Dostoievski got some of St Petersburg' s street geography wrong. Or instead of reading Dostoievski, people could link to my debate with Jarvis about Notes from the Underground.

No. Dostoievski has nothing to learn from me (or Jeff Jarvis) as a reader, nor does Calvino or Sebald or even De Lillo, who is still alive. These are all great writers; there is no such thing as a great reader.

Jarvis says that  "print is where words go to die" and he tells curmudgeons like me that "resisting change is futile."  I suggest that he reads Notes from the Underground. Then perhaps, like me, he'll join the resistance.

Worst-paragraph-of-the-day award

I have a new award : Worst-paragraph-of-the-day (WPD) on the internet. And my inaugeral WPD award goes to Jeff Jarvis, author of the perenially opaque Buzz Machine.

Today, in writing about the fate of books, Jarvis makes even Kevin Kelly sound lucid:

Part of what I’m trying to argue in my speculations about the fate of book is that context both defines and enriches content. Without that context, the content is poorer. The ability to link to and from content and its antecedents and successors in a chain of criticism, contribution, questioning, correction, argument, and remixing becomes part of the content itself. The timing of content matters, of course. What content does not say says a lot about it, as well. Who creates or consumes content also defines that content; chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks. And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation; our iPod playlists, our Amazon breadcrumbs, our Google clicks, our Flickr links, and our RSS aggregations are all collections of interaction with content that become content themselves.

This award winning paragraph from "Context is Content" sounds like its been translated backwards and forwards a few times from English to French. And that's the only complimentary thing I can say about it.

Jarvis tells us, incorrectly, that the creator of content "defines" that content. Writers, original writers that is, write outside context. That's what distinguishes their work. It is only in retrospect that genuinely creative writing can be "contextualized" by philistines like Jeff Jarvis.

Jarvis display's something less than Aristotelian logic in his observation that "chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks." Does this crude determinism mean I become a chick when I read (or write) chick lit?

"Context is Content" sounds as if it was written by John Cleese trying to be Hegel: "And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation."

But Jarvis leaves the best (ie: the worst) for last. He writes about "Amazon breadcrumbs.... collections of interaction with content that become content themselves. This unedifying image of breadcrumbs in the Amazon clinched it for me. Thus I'm truly thrilled to award our first WPD award to Jeff Jarvis for "Content is Context."

And the prize? It's the Elements of Style by Strunk and White -- a book outlining the principles of composition, grammar, word usage and writing style. The Elements of Style is classic content; in other words, it is timeless and, thus, entirely without context.

John Updike's edge

JohnupdikepagePerhaps the book isn’t quite as dead as the technorati would like us to believe.

No less an author than John Updike has entered the Kevin Kelly debate. As the Washington Post reports, Updike spoke at BookExpo America at the weekend about Kelly’s New York Times anti book polemic:

"I read last Sunday, and maybe some of you did too, a quite long article by a man called Kevin Kelly," Updike told his audience at the Washington Convention Center.

Updike’s presentation at the weekend certainly had edge:

“Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of "information" on the Web,
books traditionally have edges. But the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets.”

Exactly. Books have edges. Like coherent narrative, like history, books have a beginning and an end. Contrast this will the amorphous anarchy of the digital information economy, with its never-ending chaos of links.

As Updike says, books teach us – both the reader and the writer – to celebrate our individuality. And he advised booksellers to resist “that-man-called-Kevin-Kelly’s” utopia:

“Defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."

This is the heart of the matter. Updike is right; Kelly is wrong. Books are intrinsic to our human identity; the web and its “pod of snippets” aren’t.

Reading Kevin Kelly

If Kevin Kelly didn't exist, we would have to invent him.

Not satisfied with his utopian ten point 1999 New Rules for the New Economy,  the utopian Kelly is back with an eight point manifesto in yesterday's NY Times in which he tells us that internet search engines will set books "free".

As Nick Carr wrote yesterday, "Kevin Kelly is excited again." And Kelly's excitement is about the vision of a universal online library made up of a "very large single text: the world's only book."

Kelly's vision is of a connected media in which all the world's books are digitally scanned and link. He calls this the "liquid version" of the book and argues that we have a "moral imperative to scan." The end product of Kelly's utopia is a hyperlinked world of 32 million books, the sum total of total publications since the "days of the Sumerian clay tablets" -- all combining to form a single hyperlinked text.

The only problem with Kelly's piece is he forgets about reading. He writes off our 500 year old tradition of sitting down with a single physical book. Kelly's vision is of communal participants, radical interactivists rather than passive readers. Thus, in Kelly's uber-scanned world, we will jump from link to link, we will surf from reference to reference, we will scrawl in other people's digital margins. But there is nothing in Kelly's piece about the simple action of reading a single text. In this digital world, it seems, we'll be much too hyperlinked for such a singular activity.

So in this utopia, there is only one book and nobody is reading it properly. I wonder if Kelly has secretly been "reading" Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World.


I am enjoying my advanced copy of Chris Anderson's Long Tail. It's provocative, well written and will become a key text in the Web 2.0 debate. I've also been rereading Daniel Bell's prodigous The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), an absolute requirement for those of us interested in the philosophical foundations of postmodern culture and economy.

Reading Bell in parallel with Anderson has helped me establish a historical and cultural context to The Long Tail. The essence of Anderson's economic argument is one of the victory of abundance over scarcity. In a section entitled "The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance," Anderson argues that digital media provides infinite shelf space, distribution and choice, thereby undermining the traditional definition of economics as the science of scarcity. In this digital world of abundance, Anderson tells us, there will be an almost infinite selection of media. The only scarcity, he notes, will be that -- and this isn't inconsequential -- of human attention.

So what does Daniel Bell does us about scarcity and abundance? Bell writes about the disjunction of American hedonistic culture and rational economic behaviour. He calls this the "Double Bind of Modernity." Bell says that American capitalism "has lost its traditional legitimacy, which was based on a moral system of reward rooted in the Protestant sanctification of work." So Instead of Benjamin Franklin, we have Donald Trump. Instead of homesteaders, we get countercultural narcissists.

Bell is, of course, deeply indebted to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Thus, he tells us that the legitimation crisis in American capitalism is cultural rather than economic:

"The Puritan temper might be described most simply by the term "delayed gratification," and by restraint in gratification. It is, of course, the Malthusian injunction for prudence in a world of scarcity. But the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence."

Now back to Anderson's prediction about digital abundance which, in truth, represents another round in the age-old American cultural struggle between self-discipline and self-indulgence, between prodigality and prudence. Anderson seduces us with a vision of an abundant world of infinite choice. The editor of Wired magazine prodigally promises the end of scarcity, the end, indeed, of traditional economics.

But Anderson is an ideologue of abundance in a world of increasing economic and ecological scarcity. He might be smart, but he is imprudent too. And his argument isn't grounded in the reality of contemporary America. Even if one accepts its technological and economic premises, Anderson's theory of the Long Tail doesn't change most people's lives -- lives increasingly limited by scarcity rather than broadened by abundance. After all, it doesn't really matter how many books are on offer at if your job has been outsourced. Nor does it really matter how many videos are available on YouTube when gas is $5 a gallon.

In contrast with the optimistic Anderson, Bell is no friend of modernity. The Harvard sociologist tells us that "behind the chiliasm of modern man is the megalomania of self-infinitization."

I like that. Bell could be describing Anderson's theory of the Long Tail. This seductive vision of abundance is a megalomania of self-infinitization -- infinite choice, infinite media, infinite culture, the infinity of digital abundance. And also, in a way perhaps, infinite irrelevance.