Thursday, April 1, 2010


In another in a seemingly endless series of elegies for the culture of reading, Sven Birkerts contrasts the experience of the novel with that of the Internet. He opposes analytical reason, which is the means to an end (usually information), to contemplative reason:

This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes--that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.

Perhaps fiction-reading (not unlike aesthetic experience generally) is analogous to meditation: both are modes of both managing and exercising consciousness. But whereas meditation is all about process, even embracing emptiness and eschewing the demand for content, reading revels in content, but in a disciplined and focused way. In meditation consciousness steps back to observe and to accept its own dynamic instability; in art we step back to observe and to accept the world's dynamic instability--and our own part in it.

I have never been able to enjoy the experience of meditation, even though--or perhaps because--a contemplative state of mind comes naturally to me. That does not somehow make me a Zen natural. I find Zen to be a bracing philosophy, just as I enjoy a splash of water on a stifling day, but it is easily taken too far, into a zone of absolute zero. The mind that needs nothing outside of itself, that is affected by nothing outside of itself, is dead. In fiction, by contrast, we may pleasurably luxuriate in the productions of consciousness. In art we realize the hope that our own minds may produce that which we need, and not by denying that need.

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