Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I was brought up in a household that retained vestiges of Victorian ideas about child rearing. The phrase "children are to be seen and not heard" came up periodically. I didn't realize it at the time, but when we moved to the U.S. in 1957, my older sister was shocked by the change because the loud and rambunctious American children scared her. The dialogue at home was always unidirectional, with the adults imparting wisdom or instructions to the children. In school, it was more of the same, with teachers replacing parents.

For whatever reason, I have always preferred a more participatory mode of interaction, particularly the one-on-one discussion. Unfortunately, society allows little space for that. When I arrived at college in 1968 my first reaction was that I was in a utopia. Essentially, everyone had free time to discuss things and did so. Even the classes were an improvement over high school, because some had few students. The smallest classes were like tutorials, and the seminars emphasized discussion. Perhaps this was the first time in my life that anyone paid attention to what I had to say.

However, the environment that I experienced in college turned out to be an aberration. When you have a job, no one cares what you think about anything, and you are only there to execute someone else's instructions. All of your friends and acquaintances are busy and become philistine in their habits. "Meaning of life" discussions are no longer of any interest to them.

For most adults, sustained thought exists only in books. You can read someone else's monologue or you can write your own monologue. Most academic books are filled with obfuscation and cannot be satisfying except to specialists. Fiction is a time-killer for most readers, and popular fiction by design makes no demands on those who merely seek entertainment. I'm not sure that a genre such as serious fiction even exists. If you think books involve interaction between the author and the reader, you are deluding yourself. Writing a considered letter to an author typically results in no reply, and even in the best of circumstances rarely precipitates any discussion.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I had hoped that the Internet might provide a new option. There is much to be found on it, but it usually isn't the actual place where the discussion occurs. I've come across videos of good discussions. Occasionally there are good formal, written discussions where invited experts make posts on a specific question. But most of the kind of discussion that I like is restricted either to forums or to the comments sections after articles, and there are significant limitations to both. Originally I thought that these limitations exist only because the right Internet formats for ad hoc discussion hadn't been developed. I now think that they may never develop for two reasons. First, people who set up websites are usually doing so for a profit. Providing an open-ended platform for random people to participate in high-quality discussion doesn't look like a promising business model. In order to work well, such a site would require full-time moderators and would offer little prospect of sufficient revenues. In my experience, the moderation at most forums is barely enough to remove basic infractions, and it doesn't protect them from low quality. The second reason is that, as described above, most adults are not actually interested in discussion. If they read at all, they are reading mainly for entertainment. Interest in the kind of discussion that I like seems to be low, and that discussion becomes invisible on the Internet, where it is often inundated by the words of thoughtless people who suffer from logorrhea.

The upshot of the above is that there is a change in the conception of this blog. Originally I was hoping to attract some discussion on subjects such as the strengths and weaknesses of The New York Review of Books. I now think that, while there are people who are interested in such topics, very few are interested in discussing them online. If they have anything to say about it, they are more likely to write an essay than find a blog that mentions it. Therefore, by popular demand, this blog is officially moving to the monologue model, with little expectation of participation. I am still encouraging you to comment, but less so than previously.

I might add that I appreciated John's editing of the Wikipedia entry on Lorrie Moore. That makes this feel more like a participative endeavor. If I ever come to see this blog as a solipsistic enterprise in which I am writing only for myself, I will be inclined to abandon the entire project on the basis of narcissism.


  1. An alternate way of framing your observation that people are generally not interested in discussion is to consider the fact that we do not live in a society that places much value on serious dialogue. The reality reflected back to us from the media, our government, and the corporate world (entities with increasingly blurred boundaries) is one in which soundbites, superficial statements intended to evoke strong emotion, and ubiquitous marketing tactics prevail. There may in fact be many people who would like to discuss the pressing concerns of our time, but have not been educated and/or socialized with the skills to do so. It takes a certain amount of practice and (more importantly) feedback from others to become any good at having a discussion. You have been able to reap the benefits of a liberal arts education, but the vast majority of the population will never get this opportunity. Additionally, consideration should be given to the amount of time it takes to craft a thoughtful response in writing to someone else's arguments. I think few people are willing to use the limited free time they have after work and household responsibilities to think long and carefully about how to come up with a counterargument to something they've read. In other words, there are very real social and economic constraints on people's ability to have serious conversations in our culture.

  2. Obviously I agree. I was thinking of mentioning TV, because that seems to have framed people's habits and expectations. Jon Stewart is a good example. People like the short version of the news contained in an entertaining package which they view passively. But Jon Stewart is a variation of Johnny Carson, whose motives had strictly to do with entertainment.

    At a broad social level, the passivity in U.S. looks like a result of thought control. It is never identified as such because there is no single ideologue that it can be traced to. I think it is an unintended consequence of capitalism. Ironically, the American system seems to be even more effective at producing conformity than communist propaganda.

  3. I comment only to note that I continue reading your blog from my new and temporary home base (in case you were wondering). I've been tempted now and then to post a substantive comment, not about the meaning of life, to be sure, that never having been a topic of particular interest to me, but about your remarks on capitalism and inequality (I have tepid faith in both). Alas, the temptation has been all too easy to resist, as I have far too little energy after a day at the office. Work is draining enough, but then there's the rather agreeable but tiring twelve-mile bike ride, morning and evening, around the end of Lac Léman.

    Forgive me, finally, but (dé)formation professionellle oblige: You often use the USPS abbreviations for states; we editors prefer the AP abbreviations. That is, the ones that end with a period and are not uppercased throughout. These abbreviations are also followed by commas when they appear parenthetically (as are years, for that matter). For example: I was born August 17, 1969, in Athens, Ga., to parents of relatively slender means.


  4. Good to hear from you, John. Actually, I have so few people viewing my blog that when you said you had moved, Macintosh/Firefox/France disappeared and Macintosh/Firefox/Switzerland appeared in pageviews, it was easy tell that it was you.

    Geneva and Switzerland are one of my favorite areas in Europe. I spent two weeks there in 2000 and took trips to Italy and France with a rail pass. I assume you prefer it to Nice. I'm currently reading "Frankenstein," which is partially set there.

    I felt that my initial presentation of the blog placed an unrealistic pressure on readers to comment, and mainly wanted to relieve them of any sense of responsibility they might have.

    I fixed up my sentence spacing and will now try to work on my state abbreviations. It's been so long since I've seen the old ones that I hardly remember them any more.

  5. Try Google Analytics. It's like spying, the joys of which, I've often found, are vastly underrated.


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