Conversations May 21, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

5:30 AM. Okay, Papa, much good discussion yesterday of how to work. It makes me aware that I do not work nearly enough, and that I am habitually lost as to what to do or how to proceed. Then every so often I will proceed in long bursts of energy and will accomplish a good deal. I’d prefer to work steadily, in the manner that we are working now, or that I did in the first few months of my retirement. But I’d prefer to do much more.

Yes — except that you read all the time, out of lifelong habit and a sense that there is so much out there to be read, far exceeding your ability to keep up with even the small area that interests you. Don’t I know the feeling!

Callaghan said “Hemingway read everything.” And your omnivorous reading of newspapers, magazines, books, is well known.

Yes, and I reread a lot, too, though not like you. But in all that reading, I didn’t get lost in other people’s worlds. I had my own. It served as a balance between my world of action and an inner world of a different kind of action. And this is something that biographers ought to spend more time on than they do — what did the subject of their biographies read? What did he get out of it? How did he fill his inner world? Because if he is a big reader, that’s a big part of his inner world, a big part of his inner life, and to pass it over by saying “he read a lot” is the same as saying “he sat around a lot with his nose in a book,” or a newspaper, or whatever, as if it were an inert activity. It misses that part of him.

But the biographers can’t capture that aspect of anybody, and I’ll tell you why. They’d have to read the same things, and the same mixture of things, and they’d have to do it while the same kind of things were going on around them, and they’d have to be associating what they were reading with a million things from the person’s past life and past reading. It can’t really be done. That’s why somebody writing your biography is a waste of time to cooperate with. It’ll be like a newspaper story, never quite right in the detail, and therefore misleading at best.

I do see that, and I agree with it. Who could report on my internal life when I don’t even leave a record of most of it, and couldn’t if I tried? And yet biographies are important to me; they give me a rich sense of others in the world.

Biographies are important, as histories are important, or news stories are important — but you can see why people sometimes get lost in a different world, relying too much on what they read and not enough on what they experienced firsthand. You go to a book, or to a news story, as a resource, not as the final word. Could I have understood Spain by reading books about it? Could you? Could anyone? You can catch a certain fascination that can lead you to experience, but that’s about all.

You’ve seen the letter I wrote to one of my biographers, objecting to the whole enterprise, and you’ve seen Lindbergh’s letter to somebody pointing out the huge number of errors in a biography of him that he had read at the other person’s request. Reporting on someone else’s life is always going to be a secondhand kind of thing, would be even if they could get the detail right, which they never could. So — don’t over-invest in them.

Nonetheless, even though nothing you read can be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you need it. It’s your window on the world. How else are you going to know anything about who Coleridge was or what he wrote or what it meant to him or to his contemporaries? How else — to speak about newspapers — are you going to know what everybody else is also reading?

However —

In your day you had radio networks and television networks but then had fragmentation of news outlets into —

Well, let’s go about this a different way.

You are watching two contrary developments happen at the same time. They don’t balance each other out, though — they just fragment everything. Instead of one form of media — newspapers existing in great numbers, owned by different individuals even if they all believed more or less the same thing — you have more than one kind of media, owned by a few corporations, with much less diversity of ownership but not much difference in that they believe more or less the same things. Or, let’s say, they have more or less the same broad interests, and of course they know it. Where we had Hearst, you have Fox, but it’s the same principle.

But you have cable TV, and broadcast TV, and the Internet, and now a lot of forms of social media that are coming into form that you don’t yet see as media. The fact that all of this is new is why there is this chaos of competing voices, competing visions, out there. But don’t think it will last that way. People will get tired, and only the ones with long-term motivation will become dominant. The same rule that moves a chaos of carmakers to become only a few does the same in any industry, you’ll notice. That’s because there’s only so much attention anybody can give to anything, and so there’s only room for a few brands to become and stay household words. I know this is a vast oversimplification, but it’s close enough for my purposes. I’m not writing an economic textbook.

All I’m pointing out is something that ought to be obvious to everybody anyway. You can’t trust the news media to tell you the truth, but you can’t live without them either, or I guess I mean, you can’t live unaffected by them. And it isn’t any different in principle about books. The things that drive them will be different, and the way they go about things will be different, because they’re asking a higher upfront economic investment than an Internet site, say, but ultimately they’re going to want an audience and a profit, and that is a pretty big common denominator. It’s true, you can find individual books that tell the truth, but you can find individual new stories that are true, too. But the overall mass of things is going to be falsified by the same pressures. No matter how true and fine an individual book or news story or Internet site, the great mass of it is going to be horseshit and lies.

You have to know that, if you’re going to understand your world! Doesn’t matter when you live, or where, I am confident that if you really look, you’ll see it’s true.

So — if you can’t rely upon anything you read being true and accurate, but you need to rely on it for general grounding, where does that leave you? You’d better have a grounding in direct personal experience. (And when I say read, I mean watch and listen, too — every way in which you get “the news” day by day.)

But, personal experience of what? Do I mean go out and see for yourself what’s behind all those news stories? Obviously not. Even to chase down any one of them would make you into a researcher, and you’d wind up like Carlos Baker — yes, I used to call him Back Up, but only in a sort of exasperated way, because he never could see the impossibility of what he thought he was actually achieving — but you’d wind up like Baker or any biographer, trying to fix in their mind something that is always fluid and mostly intangible.

So — personal experience of what? Of the things closest to your life, of course. If you are a woodworker, that’s it. If you are a writer, it’s the writing process. If you fish, maybe it’s that. Something real to you. Psychic exploration, why not? Collecting things. Gardening. It could be anything, provided that it is real to you. Yes, even reading biographies and histories and collecting a sense of how things were that may or may not have anything to do with how they really were in truth.

Now, there’s a reason I’m telling you this. You often see people going off the deep end with their theories and their ungrounded certainties and their fears, their fears in all directions. All this is because your times really are changing faster and faster, at an unsustainably fast rate of fastness! Not only do things change fast, but the rate at which they change is changing too, and it’s always faster. It disorients people. Plus, everybody has a sense of things being out of control. The only counter to that is the hope and fear that somebody somewhere is controlling things, but, given that the world gets continually stranger, and harder to grasp, the natural assumption is that the person or people or group behind the change are malicious or at least self-interested, and so, in effect, hostile to the larger interest. People look at where you are, and where you’re headed, and think that since more rational, more livable alternative routes weren’t taken, there must have been a conscious subterranean force that consistently skewed things.

But those same people would regain their balance if they would just hold to that one thing in their life that is important but doesn’t need to be reported by anybody.

There is no substitute for personal first-hand knowing.

Now — to bring this to a conclusion — reading can be a form of first-hand knowing, but what can that knowing be, but recognition? That is my fiction.

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