the only way to save reading is by reading

I do not have any rigorously-assembled and current statistics about what percentage of people read or how much and how often they do. I know I’ve read, sometime in the past, that the median American reads one book a year, which means that a huge portion read none. And of course this is their right.

To me the crisis of books is not that reading them has become a minority activity; to me, reading has always been a lonely activity. I know book stores stay open, although they are suffering terribly under Covid, and I know millions of people read. But tales of the decline of reading never strike me as surprising. I was a very bookish child and while my bookishness never kept me from being popular, books were looked at not with hostility but slightly askance, as an quirky hobby if not an outlandish one. Reading has just always been weird, and so when stories of reading’s decline bubble up I just always think, “yeah, of course.”

What gets me more is the sort of thing symbolized by the image above, I guess. It’s the erosion of reading itself due to the extravagances of “reading culture.” Here the image has eaten the act; the desire to be seen as someone who does something has come entirely unglued from doing the thing. There is a service called Blinkist that sells, quite explicitly, the ability to effectively lie that you’ve read a nonfiction book. That’s not my gloss on things, that’s their whole marketing pitch. This sort of thing would just be another brick in the wall of a world full of posers if not for the fact that there should be no such thing as reader culture. Liking to read is not the same as liking Star Wars or artisanal coffee. There are as many reading cultures as there are readers – indeed, as many reading cultures as there are books. Reading is the act of reading, and reading itself is affectively inert. What people want is for reading to become just another set of clumsy associations, something to be expressible with a few nice gifs on Tumblr.

I think of poor David Foster Wallace. The way that this author, now dead by suicide for over a decade, has become a stand-in for every kind of literary pretension there is – and, much more, for a certain kind of person, largely imagined. All human culture is becoming, with time, a set of markers for which groups we are a part of and, especially especially, which groups we are not. The only thing that matters anymore is association; we either are not the “litbro” at a party talking about Infinite Jest – a situation that I believe has literally never happened – or we are, and so we must dissolve our commitments and beliefs and experiences as readers down to glaring signals that we are the Right Kind of Person, and certainly not one of THOSE. This is human culture now: the white-knuckled avoidance of being seen as an archetype that has been written about in some shitty “culture” website.

Of course, the vast majority of times that David Foster Wallace is now invoked as a trope, no one involved has read him; people will tweet, using DFW as a convenient symbol for the kind of person they don’t want to be, and hundreds of people will like the tweet, and not one of them will have read Infinite Jest. I don’t like Infinite Jest and I don’t like David Foster Wallace (the brand) or David Foster Wallace (the actual writer) and I know this because I fucking read it. The lit bro does not exist and has never existed. People don’t read; they don’t read 1000 page long experimental novels; and they really don’t if they’re bros. Only the signaling remains.

What do we do, those of us who are opposed to the occupation of reader becoming just another bit of culture war bric a brac that orients someone among their social and cultural peers/competitors? That tide cannot be opposed. The manic competition among the overeducated coastal striving classes, the great post-collegiate game of being a better class of person than all those ridiculed archetypes out there, can’t be stopped. The people who write our culture are far too consumed by that need to show each other how cool and insouciant and fuckable they are. They’ll never give it up.

Here I advocate the Eremitic option. Just read. Read alone. Read as a cure for loneliness and read as a way to generate it. Read and any stray desire to make reading a part of your personal brand will become trivial in comparison to the reading. It’s lonely work, and contra Alan Jacobs and Austin Kleon, sometimes it is meant to be work. But it’s also, of course, one of the most basic pleasures that exists, and while our electronics may be rewiring our species to pursue only the most immediate rewards, for now the pleasure’s still there. Make of it what you can while you can.

the Ty Cobb principle

Right now we’re in one of those times when people feel anguished about whether to support artists who they feel are immoral or politically undesirable, and where much art is coming out that is celebrated for being good because it parrots back to the viewer their own assumed politics. (This is how we got the Oscar-winning trainwreck Crash, but whatever.) In this context, especially with JK Rowling’s recent remarks, people once again ask, can I enjoy this media when I disagree so fundamentally with its creator? Can I separate the art from the artist?

So: Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb was, by most accounts, a racist and a bigot and a mean drunk. He was a bad guy. He’s not the kind of guy we want to praise or emulate. So here’s my question: did Ty Cobb have a good on-base percentage?

The answer, objectively, is yes; his career on-base percentage is .433, and that’s for a guy who played professional baseball for a quarter century. That is in fact a very good on-base percentage. Now: imagine someone objects and says, “But his on-base percentage can’t be good! He was a racist!” I think most of us would agree that this would be an odd stance to take. Whether he was a racist or not does not affect his talent for getting on base. The fact that he was a racist is relevant to understanding his character, and anyone who might be inclined to admire him personally should be discouraged from doing so. Just as opinions about Rowling should be subject to influence by her disturbing comments on trans issues. But his on-base percentage? His racism just doesn’t factor in. It’s simply not relevant to the discussion. And it’s the same with Rowling (or anyone) and the art that they create. It’s simply a category error to judge one by the other.

I’m not suggesting that the appreciation of art is as objective as the calculation of baseball statistics. I am suggesting that human beings produce things that are independent of their character, and separating the two is natural and easy. Richard Feynman was I’m sure as sexist as they say; how could that undermine the scientific validity of his scientific findings? It couldn’t. These things just aren’t connected.

And by the way, JK Rowling will live out the rest of her life as a billionaire irrespective of the individual behavior of you and everyone else. If you want to boycott her work to prevent any of your money from going to her I understand and respect your decision, but if you’re conflicted, I think you can be forgiven for not boycotting a person who will never, ever feel the effects either way.

Update: It seems modern historians have revised the conventional wisdom on Cobb’s racism? Apparently he was even an advocate for the integration of baseball. Seems like I picked a bad example to name the principle after. Bad job by me.

the nobody problem

You will have likely observed that social media has long since become a kind of perpetual fox hunt where a target is identified for social extermination and everybody joins in. Every morning on Twitter that’s the essential question: who will we hound today?

What you may notice is that those most dedicated to escalating every conflict into an excommunication are not the name brand blue-check types but low-follower, low-engagement accounts. (Which is no insult, or not from me; I was never a high-follower account myself.) Why?

I wrote a piece years ago, when I was on Twitter, and called them Accelerants – people who seem to exist only to make conflict on social media nastier. And I think the really essential piece is this: no one cares enough about them individually to know how morally they act themselves, and so they can engage in moral censure of everyone and everything. If you are enough of a visible personality that people might track your history, people can respond to your moral judgments by pointing out areas where you yourself have failed to act morally, or at least, to areas where your moral beliefs appear to be inconsistent. But if no one cares about you enough to remember what you’ve said and done in the past, you’re free. And in the middle of a Twitter mobbing there’s so many low-follower accounts coming at people that no one could possibly respond to them all even if they cared enough to know something about them. They draw power from their powerlessness; they have the strength of a faceless horde. Facelessness, after all, means there can be no accountability.

It is true that claims of hypocrisy are never dispositive for solving actual moral questions and that a tu quoque is a fallacy. But it’s also true that “you should follow the same basic moral rules that you judge others for failing” and “those who judge should take care as they themselves are subject to judgment” are pretty elementary (and elemental) aspects of navigating the human moral universe. There’s no possibility of that when you have all of these accounts that are for all intents and purposes burners, ones that combine literal pseudonymity with the inherent anonymity of being a face in the crowd – especially when that face is some avatar chosen for its disposability.

Anonymity breaks morality. It removes the basic sense of skin-in-the-game that’s necessary for accountability and adult conduct. It erases the requirement to be morally consistent and eliminates any sense of shame about shaming others. (You have a plank in your own eye, I assure you. We all do. You are not the exception.) And social media gives anonymity to a vast army of people who have, according to all available evidence, nothing but ill intent, the desire to do harm. Is it any wonder all of it is a horror show?

remember the ways of the queen bee

It’s a misconception that popular people in high school are all sociopaths. In general people who are popular in high school are popular because they are friendly and kind; the common stereotype only persists because a certain type of person writes the culture, and that type of person always requires a revenge narrative, an arc that ends with them rising above their previously-reviled station, even if that revulsion is largely imagined. (Indifference, now, that’s a genuine quantity.)

But to the degree that the popular are cruel, it is important to realize: it is never the queen bee in high school who is the cruelest. That is maybe the biggest misconception of all. The queen bee is actually often quite magnanimous, and for the reason a lot of people are magnanimous: because they can, because it costs them nothing. No, it’s not the queen bee who is cruel. It’s the lieutenant bees, the seconds in command, the other cool girls who have ascended to a high station but can only dream of being the queen bee herself. It is through them, typically unconsciously on the part of the queen bee, that the cruelty is meted out. No one is more threatened by the possibility of someone else climbing up the totem pole than the ones whose grasp on it is still precarious. Meanwhile the one on top can gaze down with equanimity and grace. This is the way of queen bees.

Remember that as you go about your day today.

you can’t choose to be trad

As I understand it there’s been something of a boom in people pursuing the “trad” mindset, whatever that means – a knowing pursuit of more traditional ways of thinking and ways of being, as opposed to an embrace of the various pathologies of modernity. There’s trad impulses in the dating world, faux trad diets like Paleo, a revival of (semi-ironic?) Catholicism among upwardly-striving educated progressives, something called the “Bronze Era Pervert,” and many other instantiations of a desire to go back to a time that none of the people involved are old enough to remember.

Now there’s always an element of trad thinking in conservatism, of course, and the urge to go back is perennial. And even in the sense of a chosen, explicit return to past ways of thinking, there’s a lineage. In my earliest blogging days (say 2008/2009) I used to engage with a group that was, at the time, calling themselves “postmodern conservatives”: people who knew that choosing a traditional mindset was exactly that, a choice, but who knowingly chose it anyway. That is, like today’s trads, they were not dissuaded in their pursuit of traditional values by their knowledge that they were actively pursuing it. I don’t know whatever happened to that tendency; perhaps the political convulsions of the Tea Party and the Obama era made such philosophical distinctions seem decadent, or perhaps they simply found they had too few friends on the right to make a real movement. Or perhaps they just all got married and had babies and were too busy with family to write blog posts anymore, which would be the closest thing to them winning.

But now I hear a lot about a trad movement on the left. For some, this is a directly reactionary tendency which seeks to create a socially conservative, economically leftist alternative. Thankfully, this seems pretty fringe. But there’s a bigger, vaguer traditionalist impulse on the left these days, one that is as likely to see lunch pail unionism and blue collar aesthetics as the source of True Meaning as the church. It’s an impulse that the left has lost its way in a thicket of theories that deconstruct everything and build nothing. It’s an affinity for a simpler vision of coalition politics where we work together across differences rather than constantly emphasizing difference. It’s a rejection of internet microcelebrity and an embrace of community, which sounds lovely, as long as I don’t think about it too much.

The basic psychology seems pretty obvious. Modern life, and in particular the mental landscape of modern life, is enervating, confusing, and seemingly pointless. To be a mind today is to constantly find yourself rubbing against other minds. For many people, it is impossible to think without simultaneously thinking about what other people would think about what you’re thinking. And this is exhausting and deeply unsatisfying. As long as your self-conception is tied up in your perception of other people’s conception of you, you will never be free to occupy a personality with confidence; you’re always at the mercy of the next person’s dim opinion of you and your whole deal. (This, specifically, is what Sartre meant when he said hell is other people, not just that other people suck but that being forced to live with the weight of other people’s perceptions of yourself sucks.) We are what the Unabomber calls “oversocialized;” we are too aware of other people and their opinions, which results in an implicit set of personal ethics that is impossible for any actual person to live up to. We now live with what I’ve called the Great Conditioning, the systems of digital reward that dole out incentives and punishments ceaselessly throughout the day. (An avid Twitter user is receiving behaviorist conditioning literally every moment of their waking lives.) It is not quite an irony that this happens at the same time as a cottage industry of “self care” memes has emerged, telling people that they are the only person who matters and that they should do whatever they like; people post those memes about how the don’t care what anyone thinks and then receive “likes” for them, demonstrating that they are very desperately invested in being liked for not caring about being liked.

In contrast you have this appealing dream of a life lived without all of that. The traditional Catholic mindset might look immensely appealing to a young person who has never know what it’s like to not be conditioned by other people. Rather than the authority of the crowd, whose dictates are fickle and inarticulate, there is the authority of God, whose demands are written down on paper, carry the stamp of heavenly approval, and are helpfully interpreted for you by a clerical order. The call of marriage, kids, and family life lies for some (at least in part) in the belief that pursuing those things will allow you to live reflexively – that is, reflexively for the good of your family unit, without the roiling complexity of never really desiring without thinking about how you might be perceived for having those desires. This isn’t an argument, for goodness sakes, against family. Be fruitful and multiply. It’s simply an observation that for some people, particularly younger people, the appeal of the simple life is not so simple. No doubt they will go on to happy family lives. But in the meantime their vision of family is freighted with precisely the kind of intellectualized weight that they wish to throw off of their shoulders.

Here’s the problem: you cannot choose to be premodern. If you are choosing, you are inherently postmodern. The traditional mindset people want to occupy is one that cannot conceive of being able to choose a mindset. Gorillas can think many things, but they do not think, “what does it mean to be a gorilla?” And whatever the appeal of having the mindset of a Babylonian shepherd might be, it is difficult to imagine that a Babylonian shepherd’s mindset could be deliberately aped, as the mind will always know it is aping something. No matter how trad you act, you will never not know that it is an act. We cannot choose a way to live without deliberation; it’s an act of the self-will trying to get ahead on a treadmill of self-knowledge. It’s baked into the very postmodern mindset we all find so defeating.

Perhaps things were never really that way, that direct and unencumbered; perhaps our vague impressions of traditional life are a distortion or oversimplification, and people have always lived in the maelstrom of thoughts that cannot stop thinking about other people’s thoughts. And we couldn’t set a particular time or place where the ceaslessly self-referential postmodern mindset was born. (No matter what Harold Bloom says.) But even if we were sure that there was once such a thing as the premodern mindset, and we knew what it entailed, and we knew when things changed, we would not be able to turn off the parts of our brain that became activated when we started to ask not just “who am I?” but also “who do others think I am, and which of us is right?”

Indeed, it seems to me that the very thing that attracts many of these people to traditional ways of life is precisely that they were not consciously adopted or followed, but rather were simply lived as a simple expression of the times in which people existed. For years I’ve made the point that guys trying to embrace traditional masculinity are bound to fail, precisely because traditional masculinity can’t be chosen; it is a byproduct of not choosing, a way of living that adherents find attractive because it seems to avoid the constant need for self-definition of the modern age. (Actual traditionally masculine men did not write blogs about what it meant to be a traditional man.) And so too with an embrace of a pre-modern political, social, or religious morality. If you are aware enough to set out to pursue the traditional mindset, you cannot possibly achieve it; you are already trapped in the funhouse mirrors of too much awareness.

You might have the self-control to stop yourself from tweeting, “at Wednesday mass rn.” But if you have the urge, you’ve already lost; you are already thinking with the kind of dual consciousness that you are trying to escape. This is not an argument for not going to church. But it is an argument for acknowledging before you begin that going to church is not going to make your way of thinking congruent with that of a 17th century Italian Catholic.

To be honest, I suspect that for a lot of people who really suffer from these kind of meta-theatrical problems of how to think and live, the real problem is just the internet. They’re too online. The human mind was not meant to be constantly rubbing up against other human minds. It’s all a big, creepy science experiment, all of this operant conditioning; we did not evolve for this. And rather than suddenly discovering conservative Anglicism, I suspect some people would be more fulfilled if they just found the courage to delete their Twitter. But for many people, I fear, to not be seen is to feel like nothing at all.

People should pursue the ways of living and thinking that they believe will make them happy. If it soothes you to go to mass, my goodness, go to mass. Families are good and babies are good and, sometimes, traditional moral codes are too, depending. The thing is, they’re all good for themselves, as ends, not means. And the harshest thing to do to yourself is to try to think your way out of thinking.