Do you have a summer reading list? I have a summer reading list. Mine is, I admit, sort of wayward and delicious and not a little bit weird.
My list is also, strangely, almost identical to the reading list I had last summer. Which is similar to the one from the year before, and the year before, and so on, all the way back to something like, oh, 2002.
The only difference? Every year my must-read pile gets higher and the sense of shame over its neglect grows more pronounced, all stemming from the knowledge that, if I'm honest, the pile will remain largely unread this summer, too. I know! Pathetic, is what it is.
Shall I blame the Internet? I shall blame the Internet.
Here's the thing: Despite all my discipline and verve -- both of which I like to think I have in gallons and spades -- I've become, like millions of others, a mere skimmer of information, going for breadth instead of depth, taking in a dizzyingly wide swath of digital media every day but rarely sinking deep into any of it, never holding my attention still for longer than the average Atlantic blog entry, Tumblr photo spread, surreal Sigur Ros music video, ssense.com shopping dalliance, ad infinitum.
Oh, I can still get lost, every now and then, in an enthralling New Yorker profile. But it increasingly feels like a Herculean effort, like "Oh my God, 20,000 words? Are you effing kidding me?" as an ADHD voice inside urges "come on come on, we got links to click, emails to send, music to download; feral new media is happening out there right now and you're missing it by reading 20K words on, whatnow? Greece? Let's get on with it."
Is this sort of tragic? I feel this is sort of tragic. But it's also a sign of the times, really, wherein I'm forced to admit that all the experts are probably right: the glorious/terrible Net really can re-wire the brain, short-circuit the ability to focus and delve, coerce you into sacrificing the sweet monotask truth for the deceptive multitask lie. The bastard.
I'm not overly worried, yet. My deeper, yogic self knows this silly condition is not the slightest bit permanent. I can unwire at will. I can do a deep re-set, anytime. It's not that hard. (Nothing, all told and with the right intention, is really all that hard. We just like to believe it is). But therein lies the rub: The Net is brutally convincing. "Good luck with that," it scoffs at any attempt to unplug from its delectable addictions. "Have you seen this amazing new whisky blog?"
Is the answer in the device? I have considered the device. Buying a Kindle, or an iPad, thinking maybe if I have the prettyshiny thing with me at all times, I'll be more prone to read actual books in a new and Retina-Displayed way. It's an idea which makes Apple very happy indeed, but which I also know to be total BS, insofar as I'm sure I'd just flip through a thousand of my friends' Instagram pix and tell Siri to please make reservations for me at NOPA, because really, who has the time?
Do you see the picture accompanying this column? That's my summer book pile, by the way, the stack I'd love to get through by, say, next Thursday. Or rather, it's a part of my pile, all that would fit in the Hipstamatic frame. There's another pile just like it alongside, and yet another in my bedroom, not to mention a packed bookshelf just behind it, teeming with former reads I'd love to re-discover sometime before, say, 2024.
Ah, my bookshelf. It pains me to look at it. Oh my God, Primo Levi! The Periodic Table! I loved that book. And there's Henry James. What a pleasure it would be to re-read "Turn of the Screw" or even "The Beast in the Jungle." DFW! Martin Amis! DeLillo! James Salter! Master stylist, that guy. Didn't I see a young woman on the plane recently reading A Sport and a Pastime, in actual print? Didn't that make my heart swell and give me hope for the future?
Hey, at least it wasn't The Hunger Games. It wasn't The Marriage Bargain. Salter! I hope she loved it. I hope it transformed her world and made her see how language can do far more than whine about Mugworts or describe, in shockingly awful writing, a grey slew of X-rated housewife S&M fantasies.
Is there hope afoot? There might be hope afoot. I am mildly heartened by sites like Longreads and Longform, tools like the Atavist, even the modest success of LARB.com, places where genuine wordlusters can go and be amongst fellow language sluts and knowledge fetishists, places where long-form writing and serious investigative journalism can, if not thrive, then at least find a lifeline, an oasis free of links and banners and incessant AdSense nonsense.
Also wildly encouraging is the continued existence of serious summer reading recommendation lists, as offered up by people with important-sounding minds, interests, passions. For example...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He recently learned how to properly spank a nun, requested that you please join his Tantric yoga sex cult and begged you oh my God please do not eat this. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...