Category Archives: social media

CONVERSATION IN FLUX

The other day, following a conversation with a friend that ranged over current politics and political engagement, then moved on to changing modes of interpretation in the digital world, and ended up with my friend and I exchanging Netflix recommendations, I paused to reflect on the implicit understandings that had under-girded our conversation. These understandings formed a common ground we both drew on in the course of our conversation. The common ground itself represented an intellectual and cultural terrain established primarily through books we had read over many decades; these books (and their authors) had become touchstones in our on-going quest to understand the world around us.

In the past half hour, I said to him, we have drawn on, or alluded to, several books and authors. There was Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift when talking about the digital age; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifewhen discussing identity and social media; Arendt’s Totalitarianism, Orwell’s essays and his 1984when attempting to understand the appeal of Trump; we have mentioned Sontag, Tony Judt, Masha Gessen, Camus, and many others. Also in our discussion, we have assumed that we both know the defining events of the modern era, that if 1848 or 1870 or 1905 are mentioned these will immediately conjure up the same events for us both: war and revolt across Europe (1848), a unified Germany and subsequent influx of Russian Jews escaping the pogroms (1870), the first (and failed) Russian Revolution (1905).

When we talk, I said to him, there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we take for granted; it’s not made explicit, it’s background – like respiration. If we were to bring all this material into the conversation, a thirty minute sprightly conversation would become a three hour turgid waffle.

My friend and I share a similar background. We are white, Jewish, secular, and of European descent (for him recently, for me far more remote); our touchstones reflect this. These touchstones both embody and reflect the tools we use in our understanding of the modern world. We could be exploring the appeal of Trump, the role of celebrity in shaping values, the slippery nature of values in secular societies, authoritarianism and popularism in the western world, the assault on the imagination and creativity generally in the digital age, the human capacity for delusion, we could be exploring any number of facets of the contemporary world but in our explorations the interpretative frameworks we would be using would reflect substantial intellectual inputs, the majority of which are of long-standing.

 

In my twenties and thirties, when much more time was spent in other people’s houses than is the case now, I used to study book shelves. A person’s books revealed who they were and what was important to them; their books also informed their worldview, their interpretative framework. Of course there were times when the books were misleading. There was one woman I knew whose shelves were heavy with Hegel and Habermas, as well as Adorno and Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt school (making a comeback, incidentally, with the rise of the pop president). Whenever this woman and I went away for a weekend, two or three of the heavy boys would come along with us; and, at home, two or three of the books would sit on her bedside table. The pattern did not change over the two years we were close. She would, on occasion, read a page or two, but no significant inroads were made in any of the books. I expect they still sit on a shelf somewhere, bookmarks poking out of early chapters.[i]

With most people, however, I found the book-cases a reliable guide to who they were, and if there were no books displayed back in those paper-filled days, that was a reliable guide too. The bookcase scrutiny test also provided for a sense of location and belonging. You learned who belonged to your intellectual and political tribe. Amongst those of us who were readers, there was enormous common ground, and while times have changed and books are not so much on display, the common ground established decades ago, is still revealed when we are in conversation today.[ii]

Common intellectual ground does its work quietly, until you find yourself in a situation where it is missing. Someone wants to discuss the rise of popularism but has none of the touchstones you have. So you can swap a few facts, but when it comes to ideas you’re stymied. Ideas have roots, and if the roots are different, or, which is often the case, missing entirely, how then do you converse?

In these fast-paced times of fleeting knowledge and multi-tasking, common ground is still being established, but the shared touchstones now tend to have a shorter lifespan than their forebears, and they are less likely to be books. A few years ago, feasting on The West Wing and Six Feet Under, a dedication to Seinfeldand being sure to see the latest Woody Allen film even though Woody had gone off the boil since he went off with the stepdaughter implied a raft of common knowledge and assumptions. TV series as touchstones have now morphed into streaming. Who is binging on what carries far more information than just the name of the series.

The laying of solid ground takes time, and our presentday touchstones have a relatively limited lifespan. Indeed, it’s the discontinuities that prevail these days, not the continuities. The contraction and weakening of shared solid ground have repercussions both for the exchange of ideas as well as the sense of who we are and what we believe. As for that old fundamental sense of connection rendered through books and conversation, social media platforms with all their pleasures and pains, their fickle rewards and lasting punishments have taken over that role.

The way we are communicating is changing rapidly: texts and tweets, Facebook and Snap chat, emails (but perhaps for not much longer) and chat rooms. Phone calls are fast going the way of the dodo, and face-to-face communication, with mobile phones screen-side up and in reach, is constantly interrupted.

Conversation is a skill, and like all skills it requires practice. Common conversational ground is not forming as it once did, and when it does appear. shared touchstones tend to be ephemeral. In the wind and dust of these times, in the bright lights and glittering promises of our age, conversation itself is on shaky ground.

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[i]This same woman was described by some as ‘a genius’. A few years after our friendship had dwindled out, I heard her referred to as ‘an unproductive genius’. Such an oxymoron: the products are the proof of genius; without the products all that’s left is groundless reputation and myth-making.

[ii]The common ground does not remain static. Books and authors are added over the years, and some figures drop away. In recent times, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Timothy Snyder, Alberto Manguel and others have been added to my cultural and political terrain, and I expect Jia Tollentino will earn a place there before too long. With fiction, Elizabeth Strout, Siri Hustvedt and Julian Barnes are in, while out go Lawrence Durrell (extraordinary how a writer so influential in your twenties can become not only irrelevant but actually anathema a few decades later), D.H. Lawrence, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter was perfect for the self-destructive twenties: so much fun to be had while heading for the precipice).

THE PERSONAL LIBRARY AND FACEBOOK

I was twenty, a student at university, when I it first occurred to me that books provided the best entrée to another person’s essence. Not their clothes nor their hobbies, not their family and friends, not even their conversation. But their library.

A particular incident brought this home to me. Together with my boyfriend of the time, I was visiting one of his friends. E was a girl my own age. She lived in her parents’ house, a huge place, along with her two brothers. Although I had met her before, I knew her best by reputation. She was enormously clever, and warm and generous as well. Embraced by her peers, she had been captain in her final year of school, and her popularity had accompanied her to university. This was the sort of child of which any parent would be proud, although, according to my boyfriend, her parents would have preferred their daughter to have less in the way of brains and a good deal more when it came to beauty. Indeed, her parents favoured their plodding, predictable sons over their intelligent, not-pretty-enough daughter.

That house, it was a mansion. I’d never known anything like it. I wanted to look over the whole place, explore it room by room. However, the good manners that had been drilled into my generation made such an adventure impossible. Although, as it happened, I did manage to see quite a lot of it. E’s bedroom was on the upper storey at the back of the house; we needed to walk many passages past many rooms to get to it. I saw chintz and brocade, occasional tables and objects, large nondescript paintings, fresh flowers in vases. The overall impression was of beige and gold spaciousness. Later when we went downstairs to the kitchen for coffee I saw more beige and brocade. There was leather in this part of the house too, and the timber of cupboards and shelves had been blanched of their woodiness with a pale limed finish.

So many rooms, yet it was difficult to read the inhabitants through this house. Obviously they were rich, and they were also mindful of surface appearances, but as for anything more I could not say. It was only afterwards that I realised what had been missing. Except for E’s room, there were no books in the house. Not in the hallways, not in the living rooms I passed. How to know someone without knowing what they read? And it was then I realised that for years I’d been reading people’s hearts and minds unconsciously through the books they owned. Without books to guide me, E’s family might have been cardboard cut-outs.

In my adolescence I hid my favourite books: too private to be seen, too embarrassing if they were, my best books would expose more of me than I could bear. Later, after I left school and started a life of my own choosing, I would often find myself in strange rooms in shared houses with people I hardly knew, and I would seek respite from the strains of interaction by loitering beside the makeshift bookcases – long boards with pylons of bricks at each end – learning about the person in whose room I found myself. I would, in those far-off days, peer at the spines of books surreptitiously. I knew I was spying, I knew I was glimpsing a private life. It was like peeping through a keyhole or fumbling around in someone’s underwear drawer. But at the same time there was the delight when I found books that I’d read, providing an immediate connection to this new friend, and a range of possible conversations. And I’d turn back to the room, far less jittery and greatly relieved.

Personal Library

As the years have passed, I’ve become less covert about my interest in personal libraries. I read the spines of books more avidly than the faces of people. Faces wear masks, books don’t – although I’m well aware that books displayed do not necessarily mean books read.

I once had a friend who was reading Noam Chomsky – two large volumes of his weighty, linguistic writings. My friend’s Chomskys lived on the coffee table in her living room, within easy reach. When she went on holiday, her Chomskys went with her. Two years later, the books were still in easy reach and the bookmarks had not progressed more than a page or two.

I am also aware that books read but not consistent with an individual’s public persona are often hidden. Like the philosopher who hides her true crime books, or the historian who always has a romance on the go, or the left-leaning liberal with a nostalgic fondness for Ayn Rand’s characters. Books on show may not be an accurate portrayal of an individual’s reading habits, but the fact remains that those books that are displayed reflect how the reader wants to be regarded, what s/he regards as important, even if those goals have not been attained.

Seen in this way, personal libraries function rather like Facebook postings.

In both cases we display snippets about ourselves that will portray the person we want to make public: those aspects of ourselves we want to emphasize and share with others. The process of selection may not be the same, and the information revealed may be qualitatively different, but personal libraries, revealing as they do private thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, mimic Facebook’s exposure of an individual’s private life.

And yet, despite the similarities, I want to believe that my quiet appraisal of a person’s library, my thoughts and musings, the curiosity and the ensuing connecting are different from the frenetic ‘I’m here’ ‘Look at what I’m doing’ ‘Look at who I’m doing it with’ postings on social media sites. I want to believe that personal libraries stop people, turn them inwards, to thoughts and nuance in a way not possible with the spontaneous, immediate, abbreviated communications that jostle for attention on social media sites.

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Over coffee the other day, a friend told me that most of her reading now is done in e-format. As a result she rarely buys print edition books and, in fact, has culled her library to 150 meaningful books. These consist of books from her childhood, others from her beloved deceased mother, others still from past lovers and close friends, plus a handful of  favourites. It’s a motley collection, and impossible to glean the essence of my friend from it. Sentiment has distorted identity in her choice of books. And again, I am reminded of Facebook, but in this instance the differences between my friend’s abbreviated personal library and the often sentimental, wince-producing postings that appear on Facebook seem minimal.

In New York city, my friend, C, is in the process of selling his parents’ apartment. It’s located on the Upper East Side in a block with a resident committee with veto over who can buy into the building. The realtor looked over the apartment. The ageing, out-moded kitchen could remain unchanged, he said, but the books, and he waved a careless hand to take in the entire apartment, the books would have to go. Books suggested dust and the past, an impression that would discourage the hip young Wall Street types the realtor was hoping to attract.

It’s all surface these days: the books for display, the displays without books, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media sites. But as paper formats give way to e-books, and social media encroaches on every waking hour, we are losing more than just an artefact with the demise of the personal library, we are losing what was once a readily available opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we value.