This past Friday, I pulled up one of my favorite book blogs “Paper Cuts” by the NYTimes and read the posting “A Fireside Chat About Book Burning.” In it, blogger Motoko Rich discusses an event sponsored by the National Coalition Against Censorship, a nonprofit in defense of the Second
Amendment. At this particular meeting, Toni Morrison was a guest along with Fran Lebowitz and 40 other writers, publishers, artists and supporters. Sounds like my kind of party!
During the discussion, Toni Morrison addressed the issue of new technologies and the endurance of the novel. She said, “we have to distinguish between data and information and knowledge. Knowledge is a separate—or a culmination of these bits, and following knowledge is wisdom…We think about novels as merely entertaining. But the good ones are bodies of knowledge.”
I so appreciated Morrison’s response. No, more than appreciated. I treasured it, read it over and over and championed every word.
In this age of Internet and YouTube, television and DVRs, Skype, email, and texting, we have a lot of information being thrown at us. I’m learning a new lexicon every day! (Note: I’ve recently entered the webcam Skype world.
I can give myself a Fu Manchu while I web chat… interesting.) Younger generations are exceptionally adept at the technology presented to them. After all, they’ve grown up on virtual simulations, .htmls and reality TV. Yet, the more “educated” they are in the world, the less knowledgeable they seem to be in the deeper matters of humanity.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think kids today know a lot of stuff I didn’t know at their age. They know that daisy dukes are sexy, that your eyes dilate when you’re turned on, that war is everywhere, that even good guys do bad things, that politics and religion could tear the world apart right in their own homes, that money makes people smile, that parents sometimes lie, that friends will follow you right off a cliff, that you can buy anything you want on E-Bay including Paris Hilton’s hair, eyelashes, or even a BFF. They know humanity through YouTube video feeds and their friends’ latest updates on Facebook. But like Morrison so aptly pointed out, the bits haven’t been culminated into knowledge— and certainly not wisdom. They’re statistical dots on a page that have no narrative line of connection.
Enter the novel. “The good ones are bodies of knowledge,” Morrison said. Oh, how true. Novels are stories that connect the dots through the tangible, compassionate perspective of an author and his/her characters. Compassion by definition means “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” As human beings, I believe we are born with innate suffering and a longing to alleviate it—both within ourselves and others. No, I’m not a pessimist or a nihilist. Truth be told, my husband would label me a semi-Pollyanna. But the fact is, we’re dying from the moment we take our first breath. But that should only drive the message home: We must make the most of each moment and complete the journeys we’re here to do.
Novels show us those. They illustrate the many dichotomies of the human spirit: love and hate, cruelty and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness, truth and lies, the ugly and the beautiful, the sad and the happy, the lost and the found, etc. They portray men and women journeying through life’s quandaries and successes, capturing what technology cannot with all its program codes and digital pixels—feeling. They are unique catalogues of empirical knowledge holding a mirror up to our human selves.
Each June of my childhood, after school was over and summer officially began, my mom wisely took me and my younger brothers to the local library where we were told to go in search of our summer adventures. Nothing was off limits in the library. If we wanted it, we checked it out. For me, this was the equivalent of meeting a hundred new friends and seeing a thousand new places. I cherished Little Women, feeling sisterhood for the first time; discovered a kindred spirit in Anne of Green Gables; found justice and nobility in the Chronicles of Narnia; was terrified to turn off my nightlight while reading Lord of the Flies; and knew I’d never known such love as in The Great Gatsby. These and so many more gave me knowledge of the heart kind. And that, my friends, is the power of the novel.
So please forgive me if I choose to spend my days reading and writing what I do and not Twittering on the newest ice cream flavor in my icebox. While mint chocolate chip may be facinating to some, I pray and struggle each hour of each day to leave behind something more than just tweets. 🙂
Yours truly, Sarah
If you want to read about the other issues addressed at the NCAC fireside chat, check out the blog on “Paper Cuts”: http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/a-fireside-chat-about-book-burning/