Monday, April 27, 2009

Robert Fisk's World: Everyone wants to be an author, but no one is reading books
Our dependency on computers is destroying our ability to ‘deep read’
Robert Fisk writing in The Independent, Saturday, 25 April 2009

I blame technology. The internet, email – neither of which I use – and the accursed laptop. I curse the laptop for two reasons. Firstly because I use it. Secondly because it encourages hopeless authorship. It's not that everyone with a laptop thinks they can write a book. The problem is that everyone with a laptop does write a book.
They arrive by the dozen, in my Beirut mail bag, unsolicited on my Beirut doorstep, in my European mail. A few are brilliant. Most are awful. They are packed with misspellings, bad grammar and often pseudo-anthropological jargon. "An Ontology of Abstraction and Concreteness" is the subtitle of one heavy volume I was generously handed after giving a lecture in Ottawa. "The Arab Mind as a Function of a Rational Epistemic Orientation" one chapter is entitled. "From Multidimensional Thinking to Dual and Dichotomous Thinking: The State of Intellectual Retreat," reads another. "Social Catalysts of Cultural Collapse." And on and on.
The foundation of the book isn't bad: that Westerners and Arabs think in different ways. The author uses four precious pages to describe the strengths of Arabic – the language is easier to spell than English; words for commonly used objects rarely overlap; it has a remarkable capacity for brevity; its verbal roots allow Arabic to coin new terms – but the book is buried in quotations from Nietzsche. "Negation of Negating Entities" is another chapter subtitle. The book almost has "Do Not Read" printed on the cover.

And this is far better than most. Many are in manuscript – there simply is, understandably, no publisher – and far too many are privately published. There may only be 10 copies in existence, but the writer can then call himself an "author" and bore us all. And can give me a conscience. I once chucked an unreadable manuscript PhD thesis on Pakistani literary "tropes" into my bin, but was conscious-stricken for weeks. However awful the work, I felt like a Nazi book-burner. Henceforth, I would lug numerous volumes around with me to leave in hotel rooms. Maybe the bellboy in Seattle would be interested in a history of anti-Zionism or the Filipina maid in Dubai in a doctoral thesis on Libyan flora. I gave several books on south-west Asia to my cook in Beirut – a lady from Togo – who absorbed every one and, I have to admit, predicted the murder of Benazir Bhutto weeks before her assassination.
But the hi-tech anthropological language now infects even lecture invitations. Not long ago, I received a letter from the "conference co-ordinator" of a major Canadian university which shall remain nameless. (A rich province of that great nation will be my only clue.) I was asked to give a 45-minute presentation to the meeting whose aim was "to challenge the mainstream hegemonic and ethnocentric discourse about radicalism and extremism ... in order to gain a better understanding of the multidimensionality of the problem". Needless to say, I let that one go by.
Thanks to veteran Internet analyst Paul Reynolds for bringing this to my notice.

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