Life in the Comments Section

I am not a librarian, but I work in a library, so sometimes I get to do librarian-type things. For example, the system for which I work has had a number of its branches undergoing renovation of late. Renovation often means the expansion of book collections, which means the building and shifting of shelves, which means a lot of moving books. Folks in admin put out a call for movers, and those of us who have trouble sitting still and who need a change of pace often answer, to spend the day sweating in a building in progress. It’s good fun, and the lady who oversees it often buys us all doughnuts–or as they are apparently called in Cleveland, Irish bagels.

One thing which regularly astonishes me during these moves is just how many books there are. It shouldn’t surprise me. I mean, I’ve only been able recently to trim my own house-wide collection down to the size where I have one row of books per shelf. (Life tip: never keep something just because it is a “classic.” James Fenimore Cooper has earned no space on your shelf, no matter how many people pretend to love his writing.) But there are a ton of books out there. Self-help books for the strangest niches (guides to breastfeeding for Christian narcoleptics), children’s books based upon all the latest toys, and all the genre-mashups you could imagine. More books than one could read ever, just at a neighborhood branch library that’s part of a municipality that might be reckoned metropolitan if we include all the people who commute in daily from their white flight suburbs. So many books. Too many books.

During a lull in the action, a colleague of mine unearthed a book titled something like 1,000 Books You Should Read. We both looked through the title list and counted about 150 that we had actually read (I counted 1/4 a point for The Tin Drum, having made it that far through that interminable book). We are both middle-aged men with multiple college degrees who read insatiably, and we’re only 15% on this for lack of The Charterhouse of Parma and other such works. And the list was mostly fiction, so no points for Herodotus or Newton (though why Melmoth the Wanderer was on the list baffled me; one of the editors must have loved some gothic anti-Semitism). So it’s not just all the instantly forgettable movie tie-ins or spinoffs being published these days–there are also so many good books, so much truly nourishing literature, that one cannot entirely absorb it all.

But even within one’s particular niche, it can be hard to master the literature authoritatively. I am a scholar whose fields encompass southern history and racial violence. When it comes to the latter, I cast a very wide net, having found incredible theoretical grounding in the field of genocide studies, for example. Now, how many works do you imagine have been published on southern history this past year? The Journal of Southern History comes out three times a year and includes several dozen book reviews in each issue. When it comes to the field of genocide studies, well, there are theoretical works on the nature of genocide, case studies of particular genocides, comparative studies, polemical works supporting or attacking current definitions of genocide, memoirs, studies of memory, and pedagogical works on how to teach difficult subjects. On the subject of lynching along, there are probably more than a dozen books published in the last year. (I should know–my own comes out in December. Reserve your copy today!)

A while back, a colleague and I were discussing this profusion of literature, and he raised that point that being a historian entailed a mastery of the literature, but that the overwhelming number of books to encompass meant that few people could actually exert such mastery. It is impossible now to read everything being published on the Civil War, and much less so if one hopes to catch up with all the earlier books. And so historians move into smaller and smaller niches, hoping to mark out new space, but all they do is add to the growing body of literature, and the explosion of niche work makes it harder and harder for someone to grasp the subject and write an authoritative overview.  Think you can’t have too much information to allow you to draw a conclusion on a particular topic? Then please, tell me, authoritatively and definitively, exactly what happened on November 22, 1963.

And right now, I’m just talking about books–not newspapers or magazines or blogs like this one. And I’m not even touching upon self-published books, either. Honestly, I wonder about those poor saps who still believe that writing is the key toward some kind of mortality. Every day, there is more and more out there and less and less chance that you will rise above it all. And the moment someone hits some success, she will find scores of imitators, so that the original gets lost in the mix. Don’t think so? Think originality will always win out? You do know that only two of Shakespeare’s plays were original concepts, right? Mind telling me the names of the authors from whom he borrowed his plots?

My point is this. We tend to believe that there are creators and responders. In most fields of academe, this belief is tempered a bit, for we are all operating within frameworks set down by our forebears, are all responding to arguments hatched by people responding to previous arguments, and so on and so forth. (My own book, now available for preorder, is no different at all.) But fiction, too, responds to trends and encompasses largely remixes of various motifs, styles, plots, etc. These books I was moving today were just parts of the comments section. Granted, they were, by and large, more well thought out than “LOL” or “Go kill yrself fagut”–I’m not attempting to draw an equivalency in that respect. Only that–in our modern society, with near universal literacy that has allowed more and more people to represent themselves and their respective cultures, which has produced a fracturing of universals so that we no longer are all focused upon the same cultural artifacts, combined with a buffet-style approach to personal identity that encourages sampling from various sources, more is being produced than can be digested. And with the proliferation of cultural production, and more consumption of such, it’s easier and easier to see how each product is responding to another. The Maze Runner ripped off The Hunger Games which ripped off Battle Royale and so forth. And just like our online engagement, we gravitate toward cultures that reflect our own interests, which is why I have read only 150 or so of a supposedly crucial 1,000 books–because that list doesn’t account for what’s considered canonical in my own field.

We’re living in the comments section. There’s not even an original post anymore, nothing to ground the conversation, no glorious Alpha for our inane Omega. Just chaos, just the beautiful Tiamat, wild and rebellious. World without form, world without end. Granted, some people loathe this culture, call for a powerful Marduk to bring an end to chaos. [See Trump, Donald (election of)] But if, for many, life in the comments section seems without meaning, it’s because life in the comments section lacks personality, lacks personal ownership, lacks personal possession. All is fair game to be remixed and re-mastered, and nothing is sacred here.

Now, start talking.

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