Hello and good morning.
It’s Thursday, so I’m writing my traditional blog post, which I used to write between writing fiction (or editing it) on every other working day of the week. I suppose it’s possible that now I’m still writing my daily blog between writing fiction, but if so, it’s a very long between, and I see no hint of a far end of that break, at least not one that involves me starting to write fiction again.
Practically no one—perhaps literally no one—has shown any real interest in that possibility, nor is anyone outside my family really reading any of my fiction. Perhaps few people read fiction at all anymore. I do have to wonder, how many of the people who buy even the big best-selling fiction works actually read them?
I recall back when Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a huge best-seller* that many people just bought it to have it on their coffee table or book shelf, as a social status symbol, just as they might wear Nike shoes or drive a particular make and model of car, or frequent a particular restaurant where they could be seen with other people who were going there to be seen. They were peacocking, so to speak—it wasn’t just males, of course, because humans have different social structures than birds as a general rule. But the status, hierarchy, and symbolic drives are all quite reminiscent. One could say similar things about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Hell, back in the day, there were probably oodles of people who had sets of high-quality encyclopedias on their bookshelves, that they never used or expected to use. This is a true shame, because I can tell you that just picking a random volume of an old-school encyclopedia and thumbing one’s way through it, stopping and reading when one encounters something interesting, can be quite a wonderful experience, and lets one learn about things one might never have thought to explore. Wikipedia does have a sort of “random article” feature, but it’s just not the same.
Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The point I’m making is that I think almost no one reads at all, or at least few people read anything longer than a few hundred words at a time**. People seem to prefer to watch people speaking in order to get their news, which is far less efficient than reading actual words, which are a comparatively concise and precise means of conveying information.
There are some things for which video is especially well-suited, of course. Conveying complex scientific ideas can be boosted tremendously with high-quality animation of concepts, especially in physics. Also, of course, explorations of the natural world as undertaken by the likes of David Attenborough can be used to give people a more direct exposure to things they never would have been able to see for themselves.
But still, words have their power, the written word especially (or so I think). When you come down to it, every aspect of the internet runs on written words—computer programs and commands—which convey literal, step-by-step instructions from one place to another about what pixel to put where and when, how and when and with what power to vibrate a computer’s speaker, and of course, what ASCII or similar character to call up and put where on what screen.
It happens very fast, of course, but it happens that way. The very reason video signals can be so high-fidelity but low power—phone signals as well—is that they are transmitted as languages, with redundancy and error-correction implicitly (and deliberately) built in, so that even when part of a signal is lost, the rest can “easily” be reconstructed.
I put “easily” in scare quotes because while it happens readily once everything is set up, it took some of the most brilliant minds ever in the world to figure out how that sort of thing works and what to do to make use of it, and others to figure out how to bring it to the available use of so many of the billions of humans worldwide.
Meanwhile, most of those humans don’t think about the exquisite and astonishing machinery involved in their smartphones, or their “smart” TVs, or their GPS (which requires Special and General Relativity to function!). Most people use their phones as distractions and—perhaps primarily—as yet another instance of peacocking, of status demonstration. How else can one explain the push to buy the latest iteration of the latest smartphone, when one hasn’t even taken full advantage of the features of the phone one currently has?
Humans very rarely seem actually to think for themselves. I’d say almost all of them do it some of the time—occasionally—and some few of them do it much of the time. But that last population is vanishingly small. Yet they, I suspect, are the ones who drive most advances in most fields, and produce the improvement of science and technology and art and society. What a shame that they’re usually just making precious ceramic sculptures to be tossed about by troglodytes.
Oh, well. Obviously I’m not in an upbeat and optimistic frame of mind today, if ever I am. And it’s because of facts and thoughts such as these that I think I’m not writing this blog between writing fiction but rather after having written all the fiction I’m going to write in my life. That’s okay, I suppose. It doesn’t actually matter much to much of anyone, anyway.
It’s just as well, I guess. The one person I met at work who actually talked to me about the substance and the ideas in one of my books—Son of Man, in this case—was also a person who died of a drug overdose not long afterward. It wasn’t the fault of my book; he had a drug problem already. But he was smart and curious, and he actually read the book and thought about it and asked me questions related to it, and debated points with me. That was kind of cool. Small wonder that he died a self-inflicted death; he was too much a kindred spirit to me. What else could one expect?
So, with that in mind, I—who, regrettably, cannot seem to develop a life-threatening addiction to drugs or alcohol—don’t expect to do much more creative shit in my life. I could be wrong, of course; I make no claims to absolute epistemic certainty about anything. I’m not even entirely convinced by cogito ergo sum argument. I can vaguely conceive of the possibility of myself being a figment of someone else’s dreams, albeit someone with a very vivid (if somewhat dreary) imagination. Of course, in a sense, an imagined being, if the imagined nature of that being is instantiated in the imagining of independent thought, does exist. So I guess Descartes’s conclusion, in sum, was still correct as far as it went.
I don’t know. I’m tired. If someone is dreaming me, I wish they would have a better dream. Maybe I wish they would wake up. Presumably I wouldn’t know that the dream that I was in ended when it ended, anymore than any of us would know if the vacuum state of the universe tunneled to a lower energy level and wiped out everything preceding it, because the wave front of the phase change would progress at the speed of light, which would mean that the first hint of its existence for anyone would be their instantaneous obliteration, faster than they could even potentially know it was happening.
Swift, painless, without the possibility of fear because fear cannot move faster than light—it’s not too bad a way for the universe to go. To read more about it, please look into The End of the Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack***. It’s an excellent book, and quite fun. Buy it even if you’re just going to put it on your coffee table to impress the Joneses. At least the author would get a bit of money. And some day, you or someone in your family might accidentally pick it up and learn something. There are worse accidents than that!
*Admittedly, that is nonfiction, but it serves my point more generally.
**Though, to my surprise, on the train this morning I saw no fewer than three people actually, actively reading paperback books. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. That would surprise almost no one.
***You need not worry about the possibility of such a phase change much. It’s far from certain that it even could happen, and even if it can, the best science indicates that it’s vanishingly unlikely over anything like the current lifespan of the universe. Dr. Mack explains it far better than I could.
I like your tangent about the value of serendipitously thumbing through an encyclopedia, stopping at an article at random, and then reading it.🤓
It’s really a wonderful thing to do!
Some people BRAG about not reading. I can’t even pity them.
I love Katie Mack! She is so awesome.
She is great. I really enjoyed her book.