The New Yorker
March 18, 2011
Journey with me back to 1957, the year Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made the romantic comedy “Desk Set.” Hepburn played an intensely brilliant research librarian with the belief in the power of a woman’s mind over the advent of the machine. Tracy played a computer salesman who managed to get his room-sized computer (“EMERAC,” pet-named “Emmy”) into Hepburn’s territory—not, of course, without a fight.
The audience knows what’s going to happen: the computer will be installed, Hepburn and her ladies will receive pink slips (“Just don’t slam the door on your way out”), and the once reference-filled library will now be filled with “No Smoking, Do Not Touch” signs, blaring lights, and a computer technician, Ms. Warren, who constantly reminds everyone to keep the doors closed—“One thing we don’t like at all is a speck of dust!”
When all feels lost and Hepburn is figuring out what to do with her sprawling philodendron, the phone rings. The caller asks if the King of the Watusi tribe in “King Solomon’s Mines” drives an automobile. Ms. Warren types the question into Emmy, who spits out a Herald Tribune review of the film. “That’s wrong information,” Hepburn says mightily from her perch in the corner. Her next line gives me the chills every time—“Peg, Tribune holds, last row, left, back copies. Let’s show them what people can do.”
Meanwhile, Emmy has accidentally emitted an eighty-stanza poem, which Hepburn has begun to quote, word-for-word, in loud, bellowing bass, and Peg returns from the back room, picks up the phone, and gives the Watusi answer to the person waiting on the other line. Ms. Warren screams, “There’s nothing wrong between me and EMERAC! Ever since I got here you’ve been trying to sabotage me!”
If only Hepburn had succeeded.
The fight between Hepburn and Ms. Warren captures the sort of conundrum considered by the contributors to the new essay collection “The Late American Novel,” edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee. Benjamin Kunkel, in “Goodbye to the Graphosphere,” suggests that the culture of literature threatens to become a subculture, or even a “counter-culture.” Michael Paul Mason believes the traditional role of the artist is eroding—“that the lines distinguishing filmmakers and visual artists and musicians and writers are fading so that any single person can effectively pull off a serious project in any medium.” Lauren Groff pokes fun while simultaneously trying not to panic: “It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer.”
Nancy Jo Sales, who briefly mentions “Desk Set,” wonders whether her life in books would have been the same if they had always come to her via Kindle. “There’s something about the physicality of a book,” Sales writes, “the way it looks and feels and even smells—the notes written in the margins—that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying).”
Katherine Taylor’s essay is a hilarious list of “Survival Tips for Writers” that includes suggestions like, “If your neck hurts, it’s because your tennis racquet is too heavy. Pain in the back or the neck has nothing to do with sitting at your desk for fourteen hours a day. Maybe if you played less tennis and did more writing, your neck wouldn’t hurt so much.”
And really, that’s what each of these essays boils down to: sit, write, repeat. Is it coincidence that when all these writers write essays about the future of writing to other writers their advice is to write?
My favorite paragraph is by Sonya Chung. She suggests that while we can’t ignore the elephant in the room (or the room-sized computer, or the iPad 2 advertisements), a writer’s optimism says, “Hope is what we exercise in spite of our knowledge that things may not get better.”
In the end, the future of books is unknowable, and thank God. Why worry? I love to write. I love to read. I unselfconsciously open books and magazines and stick my nose right into the spine—right into the meat of the thing—and breathe deeply. As Victoria Patterson writes in “Why Bother?,” “I brood over my work rather than the fate of the book industry.”
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