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An Age of Earnest Endeavor

The sun finally goes down like the end
of the Russian novel, and the blinding darkness
over the continent makes me realize

how tired I am of reading and writing,
tired of watching all the dull, horse-drawn sentences
as they plough through fields of paper,

tired of being dragged on a leash of words
by an author I can never look up and see,
tired of examining the exposed spines of books,

I want to be far from the shores of language,
a boat without passengers, lost at sea,
no correspondence, no thesaurus,

not even a name painted across the bow.
Nothing but silence, the kind that falls
whenever I walk outside with a notebook
and a passing cloud darkens my page.

-Billy Collins

I think the theme of my work life is shifting as technology redefines the book. The e-reader eats away the physical spine and pages of the print and bound book. My world, where colorful books I have read rest on shelves like old conversations with dear friends, and books I have yet to read beckon like exotic adventures, is disappearing from the landscape. My daughter has an e-reader. There she is, curled up on the sofa with her little light: she loves the versimilitude of the device to a book as it rests in her hand, I mourn the actual book. I mourn the vanishing art of cover design, the history of fonts, techniques of paper making, and the good old heft of a hardback in your hand. She loves the portability: the invisible space of her new library of digital stories. Easy to store, to move, to delete, to add. Her virtual bookshelf is perfectly fungible with her modern portable life.

Collin's poem stirs something in my heart, touching on the weariness of the weight of words to a writer and the struggle to produce something good we carry in our thoughts. How diligently, and often with great futility, we try to do something meaningful and artistic with simple elements of language and imagery. Now the word itself has become a digital flicker. I am slipping into the anachronism of my own time. The publishing world, books themselves, even the content of what people prefer to read reflects the digital impermanence of the 21st Century. I believe the day has come - as Steve Martin's wonderful novel so effectively skewers art history in "An Object of Beauty" - where the world of literature will widen between the mockery and irony of a new generation's self-dismissal spiked by love of effervescent pop celebrity, and the difficult stillness of old masters, of work that stands alone within the unreproachable dust of an age of earnest endeavor. The masterpiece of thirty seconds versus the masterpiece of an age.

Evidence of the declining half-life of literature lies in the rankings of contemporary New York Time's Bestseller lists: fiction has atrophied, dominated by genre, and nonfiction bounces between the caustic tell-all and cheerleading self-help. The occasional historical biography of weight and merit rises to our attention, and I think this may well be the last of great intellectual writing, destined for a liberal arts curriculum. The future belongs to the paragraph summary on the internet.

So many readers are choosing to read only the classics. What was said that is worth reading, I have been told, lies firmly in the past. I'm not sure I agree all that is modern is without soul or content - after all, the case is clearly made that yesterday's masters were in their own time outlaws of change - but what does seem to have shifted is the passion within the revolution to make something of worth. Jackson Pollack's drip paintings mark a concentrated push to reinvent the brush stroke, not a flip toss toward cheaply consumable "moments" of art. Melville's Moby Dick consumed a lifetime. Margaret Mitchell put human story in the events of civil war. I hope I am wrong about the shift in literature from content to disposable consumability. I already miss books.

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