Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Carpe Librum is encore’s biweekly book column that dissects a current title or maybe even an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. We feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
But this installment of Carpe Librum is taking a bit of a departure. Right now I feel a need to talk about something other than a particular book or a specific writer. I ask, dear reader: Why are we bothering to read at all? Why do writers continue to write? Is there any point? I ask because the culture of distraction and the disconnect between what we learn and what we do is causing me great distress.
In theory we learn about history because if we fail to do so, we will repeat the mistakes our forebearers made. In theory we read fiction because, through the lens of fictional characters, we have the opportunity to explore the possible outcomes of choices we make and therefore learn from characters’ mistakes before we make the same mistakes in real life. Books, either nonfiction or fiction, give us an opportunity to observe, analyze, apply data and theory, and test hypotheses without having to commit to a life-altering reality.
Yet, here we are.
Guttenberg invented the movable type press and printed the Guttenberg Bible in 1455. For over 560 years, we have had replicable manuscripts available in the western world. Instead of a scribe laboriously hand-copying a manuscript, we are able to print multiple copies and distribute information and ideas. And we are squandering it. We completely fail to apply the lessons we learn to our lives and to the betterment of the world in which we live.
Since the dawn of speculative fiction, writers have explored the possibility of what would happen if the masses stopped paying attention to the decisions made about their daily lives. In “Brave New World,” Huxley proposed a drug that essentially distracts people from caring as long as their hedonistic desires are sated. In “1984” Orwell hypothesized a level of government oversight through screens that create paranoia and paralysis. In “Fahrenheit 451” Bradbury envisioned a world where the distraction of screens replaced the substance of books. In “The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood explored the pendulum swing to the hard right—where women are prevented from any dominion over their own bodies. Their sexual partners would be chosen for them, and they would be forced to bear children for whom they were incapable of caring.
For me “Game of Thrones” has become synonymous with the convergence of these four books. More people in America can converse in depth about “Game of Thrones” than can adequately answer questions about our country’s available prenatal care and costs. More people are upset about the eighth season of “Game of Thrones” than can articulate the differences in the rights and privileges men and women have over their own bodies in the Land of the Free. The culture of distraction from screens is hindering our ability to apply lessons we are supposed to be learning.
When you watch “Game of Thrones” (or read the books!), what do you learn about power? About the consolidation of power? About the crazy lone hermit on the fringe with his own power carved out? What do you learn about what happens when people turn a blind eye and put a sadist in power? When good people are discredited by manipulation? About substance versus appearance?
I am not trying to be rude, but they are basics—lessons fairy tales try to teach children. Those tales were not intended as entertainment only, but as cautionary tales about humanity—people in groups, greed and living with the ramifications of actions.
Don’t get me wrong: By all means get excited about “Game of Thrones.” It is an incredible compliment to the artists that people respond to their work with such passion. Yet, please, take a moment and apply the same scrutiny and intensity to the world in which we actually live. There are villains here, too. They look extremely enticing, and are just as slick and charming. It is imperative that the slightly flawed and ultimately human “good guys” redeem themselves by taking on bad guys seeping through their real lives. Only, instead of a sword or a dragon, the battle requires paying attention and talking back to power—refusing to back down when it get ugly.
The battles, the fights, the wars—they are longer and more insidious. The stories tell us so; go back and read them. The message is there, but the real question is, why do we think it doesn’t apply to us?