The Outskirts of Progress

Trainscapes 1950: View from a train window. Photo by Walker Evans. From LIFE Archive on Google.

This essay appears in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Soft Skull. March 2011.


Much of your life is now spent traveling along the American Northeast, from Baltimore to Boston. Like many who’ve plowed back and forth along this route, you’ve grown overly familiar with the spectacle of ruined industry. The railroad runs past hundreds of abandoned factories. Their graffiti-covered brickwork, their broken windows, the rusted hulks of machinery displayed in their fissured and weed-strewn vacant lots summon a sense of an age gone missing. Gone the glovers of Newark, the machinists of North Philadelphia, the arms manufacturers of Connecticut; gone the textile mills, tanneries, and foundries. In their place rose up salvage shops, junkyards, crack dens, slag piles, allegories of post-industrial American despair. Journeys along these lines can make you feel a bit like Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” facing backwards, into the past, while blown forward by “the storm called progress,” the divine wind the Japanese call “kamikaze,” which heaps ruin on ruin, disaster on disaster. Except you are not moving forward, really, but back and forth, along the same tracks, past, present, and future strung in tension like all the wires, once visible, above ground, now running below. One person’s progress is another’s downfall, an opportunity taken is an opportunity taken from someone else. Those injuns didn’t even know what it was to own land.

Used, as you are, to this kind of melancholy spectacle—you’re not from the cradle of civilization but the manger of industrialization—it’s too easy to fall into the feeling that something, the very thing, perhaps, upon which your life depends has reached some terminal stage, a crisis. You live, after all, within a matrix of “planned obsolescence.” All that time you were staring out soot-smeared windows at what other people’s obsolescence looked like, forces were aligning and planning to make you obsolete. You wanted to consider yourself a writer, and so you set yourself to study the writers of a past age—prose of Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Dickens, Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, and Virginia Woolf—and the more recent past—Bellow, Didion, even the Beats—and the past becoming a present.

Then, one day, you forget when or who or how since it’s now a pounding conventional wisdom, but maybe it was at the University of Pennsylvania, an implacably utilitarian place where you taught for a semester, in any case someone suggested that these people mostly wrote the way they did because of the printing technologies available to them. In short, they wrote less to the dictates of their imagination or conscience than according to an invisible, iron law of technology and markets, “the industrial unconscious.” There is no more history of literature, only the “history of the book.”

In this story’s most reductive form, literary style is, in fact, nothing more than an emanation and record of the means of its delivery—the Homeric epithet arises from an oral tradition in which highly-trained human memory becomes the mode of transmission, the first “novels” or Romances were an aristocratic pastime, a kind of winter parlor game for the leisured or politically outcast, so creating the heavily allegorized, digressive style of, for instance, “The Romance of the Rose,” and the parody of that style in Don Quixote. This also explains the simultaneous rise of the novel in the court cultures of Europe, Japan, China, and Moghul India. The 18th century rise of newspapers and the serial created the multi-plot realist novel, at least in England and America too, although to a lesser extent. The further perfection and cheapening of printing led to the modernist split between the mass-produced, mass-market genre paperback and the high modernist work brought out on the cheap by irregular, small publishers.

According to this story, for it too is a story of its own time and place, the book is now reaching its end, to be replaced by the screen, whether it’s a Kindle or an iPad, or a laptop. Soon kids will neglect books altogether and, in a generation or three, the book will seem as strange to human beings as the papyrus scroll. Libraries will shut, the grander ones turned into luxury condominiums; teenagers will stumble on the remains of the New Directions backlist in an abandoned warehouse, crumbling, food for worms. This change will also bring about a new writing style. People will write to the screen, as they do already: shorter sentences, quick blocky paragraphs, desperate bids to grab the reader’s flickering attention, the presentation of hard facts in discrete packages with links to some external thing that imbues the writing or the writer with an aura of a more concrete “objectivity” than any mere text can now afford: e.g. “According to the 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Survey, ‘Reading at Risk,’ literary reading is down 14 percent since 1992.” Soon people might stop writing altogether, becoming curators, montage artists, tasteful arrangers, cutting and pasting and linking to the online archive of all past writing.

Even as something about this feels true to your pessimistic soul—you can’t help but feel that we are not all slaves to technological progress. There are still backward parts of the world, like the theater companies of London, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires where human beings still commit vast amounts of words to memory. You have friends who, when they get drunk, recite Keats, Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. In some kind of group unconscious our oral culture has survived after thousands of years, and so too “book culture” will survive. We live simultaneously in several times and ages of civilization. Human beings carry the past within them as they move into the future.

The “future of the book” is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. When you think about the crisis of the book you are really confronted with a crisis of your will. You can choose the culture you want, although you may not get it exactly as you dreamed. If you commit yourself, again and again—and it is an ongoing commitment, less easy than it used to be—to the culture of thought, inquiry, and rhetorical expression that arose in conjunction with the written word, inevitably you will carry books with you in whatever form, and inevitably you’ll want to “access them” and compose them in their traditional bound and printed form, if only to feel a shimmer of connection to earlier human generations.

It’s undeniable that you do want this connection and that you’re not alone. American as you are, deracinated, modern: you have cause to regret so much waste, so many ruins created in the name of “fresh starts” and blank slates. The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggested that the fear of having a breakdown is our way of remembering an earlier breakdown. And so it is with industrialism and the book. American culture has killed so much that once gave pleasure to so many that it seems only logical to expect that books will be next. But the cycle of regret, too, is deeply ingrained in American life. After the buffalo were hunted to extinction on the western plains, the people who did it tried to bring them back; along the Northeastern rail lines, developers and architects eye the abandoned and rebuking factories and wonder what to make of them now. The old bones are what we have left, because we’ve surrendered the will and capacity to build newer structures like them. They are our pyramids and cathedrals, and the knowledge they once represented is lost to us, the pain that went into their labor has been distributed elsewhere, although we have not cured the pain of the laborer. To look on them is to know that it did not have to turn out that way.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author