The Corner

Culture

Serendipitous and Other Reading

Portraits of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman on the home screens of Nook readers from Barnes & Noble in 2012 (Dominick Reuter / Reuters)

You may have heard that Vladimir Putin performed a constitutional maneuver, aimed at ensuring that he will be dictator-for-life. Why do they bother? Why do dictators bother with certain constitutional niceties? I lead my Impromptus today with this subject.

I also get into the Olympic Games; an Iranian defector; an American-to-be from Afghanistan; and more. Part of the “more” is a visit to Cedarville University, in Ohio. I spent the day with students, faculty, and staff — a wonderful day — and the very first question posed by a student was this: “What’s Kevin Williamson like?” I said, “Oh, baby, lemme tell you!”

Here on the Corner, I would like to publish a letter by a friend and reader in Texas. I found it interesting, unusual, and even profound. Her Subject heading is “Thoughts stumbled upon in the night.” Then she says,

Literally. I got up at 4 for the usual reason, tripped over the dog, and stumbled violently into the bedpost, yelling something I’ll have to go to confession for. My injuries are minor but painful . . .

Anyway, couldn’t go back to sleep and started thinking about electronic reading devices, which have been a godsend to me but I think for society in general could prove disastrous. I thought about growing up in a household with books, magazines, and newspapers strewn about from room to room. Nothing highbrow — just Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, the Bible, a few art and poetry books. The material was different in my other relatives’ homes and sometimes I got a different point of view from what my parents were reading, but in any case I was compulsive reader from age seven or so. Like most kids in those “unprogrammed” days, I had a lot of time to kill, and would pick something up and read it and learn something almost every day.

I know exactly what she means: random reading, in your own home, your relatives’ homes, your friends’ parents’ homes . . . I remember all that.

With electronic readers, that won’t happen. I can spend all day with reading material but I don’t have to encounter anything that doesn’t feed into and reinforce my own cultural, spiritual, and political points of view, unless I seek it out, which I do on occasion, but which is often discomforting.

So I’ve come to think of my childhood reading as “serendipitous” reading.

Yup. This next part is a little . . . well, see what you think:

For some time I lamented it as a personal loss for kids these days, but it occurred to me lying in bed with my smashed toe, bruised knee, and twisted back (not to mention snoring husband) that there’s also a huge cultural danger in this loss of the physical book. I remember Fahrenheit 451 and the people memorizing books because they were the repository of the views and the wisdom of the world and they had to keep them alive. Our electronic books are alive until some mega-something-or-other (governmental, corporate, religious, political, or whatever) decides to delete them from our e-readers and our collective consciousness. But a physical book can be stashed away and discovered 2,000 years later, as we well know, and change the world. Its potential for subversion is unequaled.

And the conclusion:

Well, there it is, for what it’s worth. Oh wait, there’s more, but it fits. An old lady in the early ’90s told me she thought she had identified the beast of the end times, and it was the Internet and artificial intelligence. I laughed at the time. I shouldn’t have. What is more frightening than an intellect with tremendous cognitive power, but no soul?

Maybe I’m just a cranky old lady with a bruised toe and a wrenched back. I hope so.

I don’t know.

Incidentally, I am put in mind of an excellent, unusual book:  Digital Barbarism, by Mark Helprin, published in 2009.

Most Popular

Immigration

The Party’s Over — No More Guest(worker)s

Last month's Presidential Proclamation temporarily suspending a tiny sliver of permanent immigration in response to Great Depression 2.0 also called for a review of the alphabet soup of foreign-worker programs. The relevant cabinet departments were instructed to offer recommendations "to stimulate the United ... Read More
Immigration

The Party’s Over — No More Guest(worker)s

Last month's Presidential Proclamation temporarily suspending a tiny sliver of permanent immigration in response to Great Depression 2.0 also called for a review of the alphabet soup of foreign-worker programs. The relevant cabinet departments were instructed to offer recommendations "to stimulate the United ... Read More

The Makings of Modern Madness

The paradigm of mind–brain dualism, like the story of syphilis, is by no means virgin territory. However, Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell’s How The Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness puts both the legacy of dualism and the story of syphilis under the microscope, and offers a ... Read More

The Makings of Modern Madness

The paradigm of mind–brain dualism, like the story of syphilis, is by no means virgin territory. However, Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell’s How The Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness puts both the legacy of dualism and the story of syphilis under the microscope, and offers a ... Read More
U.S.

Unsustainable America

Americans are having fewer babies than ever, or at least than since the government began tracking the general fertility rate in 1909. The total fertility rate ticked down to 1.7 in 2019, meaning that the average number of babies an American woman would have over her lifetime is well below replacement ... Read More
U.S.

Unsustainable America

Americans are having fewer babies than ever, or at least than since the government began tracking the general fertility rate in 1909. The total fertility rate ticked down to 1.7 in 2019, meaning that the average number of babies an American woman would have over her lifetime is well below replacement ... Read More
World

‘Professor Lockdown’ Modeler Resigns in Disgrace

Neil Ferguson is the British academic who created the infamous Imperial College model that warned Boris Johnson that, without an immediate lockdown, the coronavirus would cause 500,000 deaths and swamp the National Health Service. Johnson’s government promptly abandoned its Sweden-like “social ... Read More
World

‘Professor Lockdown’ Modeler Resigns in Disgrace

Neil Ferguson is the British academic who created the infamous Imperial College model that warned Boris Johnson that, without an immediate lockdown, the coronavirus would cause 500,000 deaths and swamp the National Health Service. Johnson’s government promptly abandoned its Sweden-like “social ... Read More

John Wayne: The Hero We Need Now

America fits into John Wayne's filmography, and this does not make America small. It makes John Wayne huge. The coronavirus has brought us back to the Wild West. Lonely lives, deserted streets, looks of distrust, and whiskey for throat disinfection; the scientific community has not made an official statement as ... Read More

John Wayne: The Hero We Need Now

America fits into John Wayne's filmography, and this does not make America small. It makes John Wayne huge. The coronavirus has brought us back to the Wild West. Lonely lives, deserted streets, looks of distrust, and whiskey for throat disinfection; the scientific community has not made an official statement as ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Biden’s Progressive Gamble

A few hours after this column appears on the Internet, more than 30 liberal activists will meet online to plan your future. The gathering is called the “Friday Morning Group.” It comprises, according to the New York Times, “influential figures at labor unions, think tanks and other progressive ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Biden’s Progressive Gamble

A few hours after this column appears on the Internet, more than 30 liberal activists will meet online to plan your future. The gathering is called the “Friday Morning Group.” It comprises, according to the New York Times, “influential figures at labor unions, think tanks and other progressive ... Read More