Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What what I read really says about me

Here's a quote.
When Jonah Berger was a graduate student at Stanford, in the early aughts, he would make a habit of reading page A2 of the Wall Street Journal, which included a list of the five most-read and the five most-shared articles of the day. “I’d go down to the library and surreptitiously cut out that page,” he recalls. “I noticed that what was read and what was shared was often different, and I wondered why that would be.” What was it about a piece of content—an article, a picture, a video—that took it from simply interesting to interesting and shareable? What pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on?
Does anything about that rouse your suspicions? I don't mean, is there anything here that you KNOW to be wrong. I mean, is there anything here that makes you think that you're not sure this is quite right.

Two things jumped out at me. I wasn't the only one. The first was shared by many wags who posted comments along the line of, "I passed this along without reading it." The second was shared by the commenter who wrote, "What pushes people to do something as anti-social as cutting articles out of a newspaper in the library?!"

The article itself bears out the first criticism. You can see it in the paragraph above: "I noticed that what was read and what was shared was often different ...". Furthermore, Berger's research suggests that people share not because of the content of the article but because of the impression it created about themselves. That is why they wouldn't necessarily read what they pass along. They could achieve that by skimming just enough of the article, and "just enough" may be no more than the teaser, to determine what it is about and that this is the sort of thing that will create the impression they want, and hit "share". I dare guess that at least 70 percent of the things that get shared fit into that category.

(A practical joke immediately comes to mind: post a link of cute puppy pictures that actually goes to hard core porn. I'm sure it's already been done. Also, like a lot of practical jokes, it's only funny in the abstract. It get's a lot less funny when some 14 year old sends the link to her grandfather. It's sort of like cutting articles out of the newspaper at the library.)

Closer to home, I realized that this is why I read Ulysses and Lolita. I disliked both books, found reading them to be boring and tiresome, but read them until the end. I thought, as I was doing it, that this would make me better than the nine million people who claim to have read them without cracking the cover but it made me, if anything, worse. I gave up a chunk of my life deliberately prolonging unhappy experiences because that, I felt, bought me membership in the club of people who actually have read the stuff they talk about. That's pure vanity. The honest solution would have been to not read either and stop hanging out with pretentious gits and make friends with the sort of people who read Wodehouse

I don't doubt, by the way, that lots of people get genuine pleasure out of reading both. That doesn't make the case any better though as both books trade on your joining into a little parlour game with the writer that trades on this not being really about what first appears to be about and aren't we both smart for playing this game. In the end, the man who goes surfing for "barely legal" porn is, like Saint Augustine's drunk, morally superior than the person who reads Lolita for the reasons that Nabokov wanted it to be read.


  1. I disliked both Ulysses and Lolita although I liked the orignal movie version of the latter (never saw the remake) only because of how the director was artfully able to present the obvious in a way that got past the censors. I think for most people Lolita was a "slice of life" kind of novel, a "slice of life" that most people were probably unfamiliar with at that time, don't forget this was late 50s/early 60s.

  2. I read Lolita because I didn't know any better, not for titillation.

    1. The big inside joke with Lolita is the whole issue of titillation or the lack of it. In one sense, it's totally depraved. In another sense, no it isn't because no actual pedophile would be interested in this book. That way you don't have to feel bad about reading it.

      One of the really important things to grasp about the book is that Dolores is only 12 when Humbert meets her. And we should remember that the book was written at a time when menarche typically took place later than it does today. To really get what Nabokov is doing, we should imagine a prepubescent child between 9 to 11 years old. Humbert isn't interested in sex so much as he is interested in an emotionally immature child whom he can completely control. (He tells himself elaborate stories to the contrary.)

      There are, of course, men (and women) like that but they tend to be more interested in sexually, but not emotionally, mature children. Their ideal partner is the 14 year old who looks older than their years; tall, muscular boys and girls who get large breasts early in life know all about the type. (Kubrick told us a lot more about himself than he realized when he made Dolores 14.) But Nabokov didn't care about psychological or moral accuracy, he only cared about the writing. And it wouldn't have bothered him because it never would have even occurred to him to find out what real pedophiles are like. Everything about the book is artificial. He wrote it because he could and did so with considerable artistry (he was a magnificent writer) but the book has no purpose, no meaning, other than being a piece of magnificent writing.

      Even the death of Dolores is just a literary trick. You pat yourself on the back if you spot it but there is no real purpose to it other than that you and Nabokov both get to be insiders because you're both so terribly clever. He is more clever than you because in this religion, and that is what it is, he is the god and you are the religious practitioner but none of this connects to anything.

    2. I was wondering exactly where you were going with your criticism of Nabokov. I think this is accurate--that he is virtuosic but amoral. Yet there really is a pleasure you can get from virtuosic writing... maybe I am just falling for exactly what you are criticizing here. I think Nabokov might be more guilty than some of the other kinda-amoral virtuosi (Updike, Martin Amis) because sometimes in his books there are little asides that literally serve no purpose other than to make fun of people who are not in on the joke--in Lolita, a journalist who interprets "Rimbaud" as "Rainbow," in Pale Fire a woman who pronounces Mont Blanc as MonBlon...

    3. I've probably come across as more critical of Nabokov than I meant. I don't begrudge anyone the pleasure they get from reading him. There is lots of pleasurable amoral art in the world.

      The point I really want to make about it is about me; it's about how I kept reading a book I got no pleasure out of just because I thought more about the self-image it created. Explaining that requires an explanation of why I get no pleasure from Nabokov and that is, necessarily, critical.

      I'm reading James Salter right now, of whom I hadn't heard until last week. I'm enjoying it immensely. I mention that because this book, it's called "A Sport and a Pastime", may turn out to be another example of amoral art. So far, in any case, there is no discernible moral purpose to the tale but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying it immensity; I have to keep slowing myself down so I don't gulp it all down; it's one of those books that you read with a faint sense of regret because you know you can never have this wonderful experience of reading it for the first time again.

      That doesn't make it better than Nabokov, although it is better than Nabokov for me.

      As Augustine said of the drunk, he at least got what he wanted from his bottle of wine. I wasted my time reading Nabokov because I got no joy out of it and yet pushed right to the end to affirm my own pride at being the sort of guy who has actually read the books he criticizes all the way to the end.

  3. A Sport and a Pastime is good, though I really didn't like some of his other stuff--Light Years was terrible, I forced myself to read to the end not out of pride but out of some strange compulsion not to leave a book half-finished :)