Unreaderly Times

My office is on the mailing list for all sorts of unsolicited magazines, including Living Today, billed online as ‘the First Filipino-Canadian magazine.’ I read through these every month in case there is something interesting – there rarely is but hey, last month, page 8 – the “Tobias Around Town” column by Mel Tobias was titled “Living with Books,” all about how great it is to have books around.

I’m with you, Mel; I love books! I love reading books and looking at books and buying books at second hand stores and I love having books in piles around my desk. But then, his next paragraph, “The worst enemy of book lovers is the bibliophobe generation (18-to-24-old-age group). They have a brazen disregard of books and reading. This is according to Mark Bauerlein, author of the bestselling book ‘The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future.'” And then Mel’s concluding sentence, “Books will outlive the world of information overload, shrinking attention spans, social networking without humans and juvenile text messaging.”

Fuck off, Mel Tobias. Just fuck off.

Here’s why I am angry. The corollary to Mel Tobias and his generational crap is the worst of my own generation, typified for me by one of my least favourite books of 2009: Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times ed. Kevin Smokler. The central argument is in the subtitle: these are ‘unreaderly times’ and the authors contained within, glib as they may be, are standing up for books against a tough crowd.

Mel Tobias gives these guys a reason to exist, a reason to feel smug; he justifies their bullshit exceptionalism. I don’t read books to be special. I don’t write to be special. Most importantly, I don’t delude myself into believing that I live in ‘unreaderly times’ and that by reading a book on the bus I am making a statement, that by writing about books I am making an important point. I work in politics; I work in a field where what I do has the effect and meaning in the world that these guys are desperate to find through tired identity-politics strawmen. Working in a real arena leaves me more sensitive than I should be towards people trying to create their own fields for the sake of their own self-aggrandisement but this book was difficult to get through.

I am being unnecessarily harsh on Bookmark Now, I admit. (Mel Tobias, however, I make no apologies towards.) As with any anthology there are highs and lows but the lows are atrocious; an essay in here by Robert Lanham titled “The McEggers Tang Clan” left me embarrassed to ever read or write again.

The little counterpoint I am trying to pose here is really just another version of the CBC debate. My father’s generation tying itself in knots trying to reinvent the corporation to appeal to a new generation that they feel is essentially beneath contempt. And the self-professed outliers of my own generation adopting the CBC as their own badge of exceptionalism. And both sides coming from the same place, looking for the same thing.


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