Last weekend Paul Comrie-Thomson’s article ‘on old-fashioned reading’ featured in The Weekend Australian’s Review section. It’s not entirely necessary to be suspicious every time someone advocates a return to values or habits now considered ‘old-fashioned’; it is problematic to think every new advance will be for the best. But in this case I am suspicious of what Comrie-Thomson says, because what he is saying is just plain backward-looking.
This piece of ‘opinion’ firstly mentions the fact that the canon of great literature is being put online. Probably true. Then the question is asked though: “Will this internet access diminish our capacity to read books?” What? Your real issue here Paul, is you think computers and ‘the internet’ will make us illiterate, stupid even. Apparently you have a friend that has tried to read War and Peace and never progressed past the second chapter. You can blame the internet if you like. Or blame your friend’s capacities. Personally I think War and Peace is not worth reading. I wish I had spent that thousand hours blogging poems.
Phillip Adams wrote a while back (again in The Australian) that he thought far too many people were using Google to obtain instant knowledge. Probably the young people. He wants us, or them, to search our memories for a change. These commentators (in these instances) seem to think knowledge procured on the net is ephemeral, soon to be consigned to the wasteland of things forever forgotten. This is nonsense. Google informs my memory – works alongside it too. Furthermore, a false corollary Comrie-Thomson seems to believe is that this reliance on Google (and by implication every sort of web-dialogue you can imagine) will destroy one’s ability to read great novels. Along the same lines: using spell-check on your word-documents means you will soon lose the ability to spell.
But let’s move on from this ‘reading great literature’ argument, and talk about poetry. It doesn’t do to talk of ‘great literature’ while you really mean long and difficult books. One might argue that reading poetry is completely different from reading this ‘great literature’, and always has been. The way I read poetry can be placed in modern terms. Like listening to music on cd, or in mp3 format. I will read through a poetry collection all the way through the first time. But then I’ll remember favourite ‘tracks’ and go to them again. I might mix them up, shuffle, have a few books going at once on my 5-disc cd stacker if you will. Sometimes I read a collection backwards (Les Murray’s latest actually worked better for me backwards). Anyway I will not read War and Peace again. And there are many novels I have loved, but only read the once. I do read ‘great literature’ sometimes.
So maybe I’ve gone off-track. Doesn’t matter. My memory is intact. Comrie-Thomson says writers need to “…read more…” but do it in an “…old-fashioned…” way. Good luck with that. I read, write, live in online environment. It has informed the way I read poetry; it has not destroyed my ability to read a book or spell. But what do I know? I’m just expressing an opinion. Which is apparently far too easily done online.