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People of the Screen: Capitalism’s Conquest of Personal Time

Mitchell Abidor
September 30, 2013
Viewpoint by Mitchell Abidor From the Autumn, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents The numbers speak: 33 percent of all high school graduates say they will never read another book the rest of their lives; 42 percent of college graduates say that they will never read another book the rest of their lives; 80 percent of families in the U.S. did not buy a book in the past year; 70 percent of Americans haven’t visited a bookstore in the past five years (www.statisticbrain.com/reading-statistics). It’s easy and tempting to blame these figures on the boobification of the American public, but in fact, I.Q.’s (whatever that measure is worth or means) are reportedly going up, and it’s hard to imagine a dumber population than the one described by H.L. Mencken in the early 20th century as the genus Boobus Americanus. The truth is that people are stupid because they don’t read, not the other way around. ARTcarrington8Reading and its role in self-education were once matters to boast about. (Abraham Lincoln, anyone?) Now it is something people can unashamedly say they will never do the rest of their lives. Wall-to-wall bookcases, once the mark of education and sophistication, are now the cause of raised eyebrows — Did you really read all these? — and questions about the need to have the books on hand at all — If you have read them, why keep them? If you haven’t read them, why have them? Even educated people will say that reading is something for which they don’t have time. This is American capitalism’s most far-reaching and intimate victory: the conquest of personal time. Time has been taken from us by the encroachment of work into all spheres of life. In the classical schema, the worker sold his or her labor power (in unconscionably long shifts right up to World War I), and whatever time was left after the work day was his/hers. Now the expectation is that we sell all of our time: We have to check our work e-mail, we have to work long hours on demand, we take only short vacations and stay in contact with work, we skip lunch. People in the U.S. work longer hours than in any other Western country — and we think of that as normal, as virtuous, as the key to American success. Failure to behave accordingly is proof that you’re a shirker. Like what you're reading?All this being the case, sitting in a chair with a book and allowing oneself the hours it takes to be immersed in a writer’s vision constitutes an act of rebellion, and few of us are rebels. Dora Carrington’s 1916 portrait (above) of Lytton Strachey with his nose in a book is as revolutionary in our time as Delacroix’s “Liberty Guiding the People.” The decline in reading is a symptom of the decline in personal freedom. Perhaps equally, it is a direct result of the devaluation of the humanities, a devaluation that is also a product of contemporary capitalism, which deems that studies should be practical, useful in the “marketplace,” or they shouldn’t be at all. The dream university of today would resemble the black colleges advocated by Booker T. Washington, preparing modern plebes for work in fields of computer servers. There’s no need to know who James Joyce is if you’re going to spend your life doing something “practical.” To acquire books and read them is to believe that knowledge has a value other than the monetary. Although we don’t read books, we tweet, text, e-mail, and watch TV — all of which require less time and effort than reading a book. These are activities more easily squeezed into (when they are not a part of) the time that we surrender to work. We text and then we’re back to what we were doing; we read a two-line email and answer in one line, and the normal order of things is untouched. It wasn’t long ago that on an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine was reproached for doing a “walk-and-talk” condolence call. Today, not only would there be no problem with delivering condolences while strolling down the street, but bathrooms are full of people talking on the phone. We have impoverished our communication but saved time, and that is the absolute good. There is no activity here refractory to capitalist logic. We also watch television shows. Since the arrival of The Sopranos on HBO, television has been touted as having the status of a literary form. It is arguable, therefore, that people have not lost their taste for good writing, they’re just absorbing it from a different source. This argument has great merit in the case of a series like The Wire. Commonly described as Dickensian (an epithet mockingly thrown around in its fifth and final season), The Wire is actually far richer than that: It is our equivalent of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, with its enormous range and number of characters and, more importantly, its recognition of the centrality of money in our society. Far fewer people get their heads blown off in Balzac than in this HBO series, but he did establish the template for the analysis of society that we find used in The Wire. Humanity will likely never see another Comédie Humaine or another A La Recherche du Temps Perdu; people’s attention spans won’t allow for their publication. By contrast, in the age in which capitalism serves as the master of time, we can sit for an hour (any hour of our choosing, and sometimes even several) and watch an episode (or a season) of a television show. Following on the heels of shows like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues or the long-forgotten Then Came Bronson, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and the other shows of their kind have elevated television to a “literary” status, with their long-term, sophisticated storytelling, astounding design work, and complex characters. With time a victim of capitalism, however, television remains more tied to the corporate business world — by budgets and seasons and production schedules and market research and the sheer volume of human beings involved in their creation — than literature ever was or ever will be. In this sense, the book, as a product of individual vision and will, cannot be replaced by Netflix or Hulu. Yet artists of the small screen like Steven Bochco and David Simon are, like the great Hollywood directors of the heyday of the studios, able to present an individual vision that at least approaches that of a literary creator. But the availability of quality television is now the alibi people use to excuse their refusal to pick up a book. A TV episode is over in an hour or even half an hour. A book requires that you return, that you find the time to continue to read it before you’ve forgotten where you are in it. This kind of time, modern capitalism has ensured, is guaranteed to few. One sector of the population remains fanatically attached to the written word in its longest forms, and gives reading the time that most of us don’t: Orthodox Jews. They prove that it’s possible to find time to read. Even if we leave aside those who dedicate their lives to study and do not sell their time for money, there are still many Orthodox Jews who have jobs, families, and lives that include praying thrice daily, yet they still find time to work their way through the sixty-three tractates and thousands of pages of the Talmud. These Jews demonstrate that in the end, the death of book-reading is mostly a matter of lack of will. Orthodox Jews believe that what is to be gained from the time spent reading their holy books on the subway is worth the effort, worth the sacrifice of other activities. Like us, they find the time to eat. Unlike most of us, they also find the time to read. They don’t, of course, read Proust or Joyce or Kafka. Still, they approach their form of literacy as something outside the realm of capitalist logic. From this, we can all learn: that the moral and intellectual deprivation caused by the surrender to capitalism’s control of our clocks is an enemy that we can actually defeat, at least in our private lives — and that the weapons we need can be found at one of those bookstores and libraries that huge numbers of us never visit. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. His books include Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.