It’s always good to see Luc Sante show up in the New York Times Book Review, and this week’s cover article on Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield does not disappoint. As only the best reviewers do, Sante allows his subject to occupy every bit of space in his article, delivering a fascinating summary that leaves me hungry for more. I’d forgotten how interesting and contradictory this crazed Harvard professor was (on the positive side, Leary had a great wit; on the negative side, he became a willing government witness to save himself from a long jail sentence). All in all, this is a good rollicking read on a Sunday morning.
Talk about rollicking: John Updike contributes an endpaper ominously titled The End of Authorship, which can only mean we’re talking about Google again. It’s no secret that I revere John Updike, but I’ll admit the great author has served up turkeys before (evidence, evidence), and this particular turkey is big enough for Thanksgiving. Updike, having read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Kevin Kelly about the future of books in the age of massively indexed search engines, thinks somebody’s trying to make books go away.
Books are actually not going away, of course (evidence, evidence), and in fact there’s no reason that printed literature can’t co-exist happily and profitably with the internet. Books are incredibly appealing and practical things, and they’re not going to go away as long as people continue to buy them. Updike sees a stark battle where there really isn’t one, and he embarrasses himself with shrill sentences like this:
“In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscious word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy.”
Yawn. Yes, John, in fact a greedy entrepeneur already amassed a fortune by cutting texts up into indexed snippets and reselling them (without permission or payment) under his own insidious brand. His name was John Bartlett. Somehow, though, the world of literature has managed to survive the launch of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in 1855. Literature will find a way to survive Google too.
Updike is usually quite well-informed, so it’s surprising that he doesn’t realize this debate already played itself out in Wired and the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine during the late 1990’s (books didn’t end then either, and neither did Y2K cripple the world’s communications). Search engines will find new ways to promote and cross-reference literature, and the internet industry and the book publishing industry will gradually work out how to make this fair and rewarding for all.
The most insulting part of John Updike’s article, though, is here:
“Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile.”
Upon reading this, I can only conclude that John Updike has never visited MaudNewton.com or Bookslut or Syntax of Things or Return of the Reluctant or Elegant Variation or Words Without Borders or the Literary Saloon or Metaxu Cafe or Rake’s Progress or Ready Steady Book or (I daresay) this humble establishment or any of many worthy others, all of which present carefully edited original commentary and try hard to maintain high standards of quality. If Updike had visited any of these sites, I do not believe he would make generalizations like this. Yo, John … we’re book people here too.
The internet will survive John Updike’s cannonade, and John Updike’s reputation will certainly survive it too. Now, if you’d like to read some quotes that help explain why so many of us do think John Updike is the greatest, check out this wonderful Nerve interview, which easily makes up for the mess in the Times.
Well, I’ve certainly worked myself up talking about John Updike. There are a few other nobable pieces in this week’s Book Review. Robert Alter approves of Steven B. Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss, which takes a fresh look at the surprising legacy of this highly skeptical political critic, who has significantly influenced both liberals and conservatives in different ways. Jonathan Freedland also approves of Noam Chomsky’s Failed States, which is more surprising since Chomsky’s book presents a harsh critique of the USA’s actual record (as opposed to its stated ideals) in foreign policy and governmental justice. Having finished Freedland’s review, I think I’m going to have to check this book out (I’ll let you know what I find).