Monday, December 28, 2009

Hip Check

Everyone has an uncle who dances at weddings. He is well past his dancing days, and any sense of decorum after a drink or two, and yet not so ancient as to be thought "adorable" for attempting the Electric Slide while quite properly sidelined with a bum hip. No. This is that peripheral relation whose presence is little noted and or explained with tight smiles at most family functions, invited sadly as a matter of course, but about whom the bride and her intended know mostly only what they've heard, and of whom all but his otherwise nearest and dearest have heard little and remember less. An inoffensive person, naturally shy in any other circumstances, he has but the one fault really, other than his age. Often as not, the bar has been warned. As has the DJ, who however, forgetting who has paid him for the night and not really seeing the harm, after much research, strikes up the otherwise unremembered and distinctly unavuncular number specially requested. All is amazement, at first, as Uncle busts moves unseen in a generation. Sharp looks find their targets even in the haze of general confusion and amusement. Fraternal heads are hung in weary resignation to the inevitable, even as the dear man finds his feet and shows the youngsters "how it's done." Only then is he really remembered from high school, recognized by distant cousins, and made familiar to the rising age. As he gyrates inappropriately near the the other dancers, all becomes clear, including the dance-floor. The previously uninstructed young offer giggly imitations from the safety of the doorway of his unfamiliar if all too imitable steps and the toddlers are barely restrained from joining him. The waiters stop clearing to watch. Some dotty old party claps him arithmetically on. Surprise turns to smug disapproval among the matrons his own age when he pulls the least attractive and most loaded of the bridesmaids into his performance, and his masculine contemporaries can't help but admire, however grudgingly, his unexpected upper-body-strength when he lifts his giddy partner off the floor where she's fallen and almost above his head. To conclude this exhibition, the DJ, now much mortified and remembering the other half of his fee, will have sensibly and seamlessly transitioned into something irresistible to the general run of wedding guests, by Kool & The Gang, or Louis Prima if the crowd is older and Italian. Relief will bring even bride and groom and their footsore parents back to the floor. Anything to move things along. The bridesmaids move in quickly to rescue the stray, and hold her loose hair back as she loses more than her share of the wedding cake and all memory of her moment in the spotlight.

And the dancing uncle? His shirt-tails out, what there is of his hair displaced and damp, is forcibly retired, still steaming, from the field, draped in dry napkins, and forcefully offered a cigarette and coffee in the parking lot by some musical nephew and an imposingly built friend or two of the groom.

Blessed be.

In reading a Washington Post piece by Monicca Hesse," As books go beyond printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?" I was much reminded of just such inevitable incidents and the humane instinct to turn us from the folly of all such undignified attempts at the resumption cultural relevance in a moment not our own. For any not old enough to remember the first infancy of the electronic or "e-book," I will recount my first exposure, back in that long ago of independent bookselling when the marketplace still had urgent need of us and we still took meetings with unfamiliar sales reps.

At a conference table headed by a forward-thinking manager of mine, in gathered the representatives of all the bookstore's departments and branches to listen to a pitch. The young man in short sleeves and a tie, after a somewhat confused introduction, proudly displayed the latest thing in new technology, and launched a rather dry, if cheerful, explanation of the wonders of "software books." Moby Dick might be read with "authentic" whale song! Little Women could at last be enjoyed with "an interactive feature" that allowed for the playing of childish games from the Civil War era, otherwise lost to any but scholars! With the click of a button, Jane Austen's country balls could be brought back to merry, musical life! Now perhaps I may have made that last sound even worse than our presenter did, but such was the true nature of the young man's bright enthusiasm and misjudgement of his audience that it is hard even now not to exaggerate his naivete or overestimate his failure to anticipate the bemused outrage of his listeners.

Having been peppered with interruptions about the relevance of musical accompaniment to reading, the authenticity of his texts, the weight in the hand of his machine, and the intended, if as yet not existent audience for all his bells and his whistles, and having been questioned closely as to the motives of his employers, the young pioneer retired, obviously rattled and without a sale. The fledgling company he represented has no doubt long since gone the way of all such premature innovation.

But times change, or rather, those of us still concerned with books continue to hope. And so, with the enormous advances in technology since that far off pitch, there are now again it seems, publishers ready to make another go at making books "interactive." No longer forced to tinker in the public domain, the nerds have now the money and wherewithal to hire hacks of their own, make "projects" of their new books; adding egg-hunts and incorporating "definitive" video dramatizations in embedded clips, that will make of the traditional book... what, exactly?

Sadly, from the evidence offered thus far, the result is not so much the promised new hybrid entertainment with prose at its core, as yet another misguided attempt at revivifying the supposedly antique and moribund custom of reading a book, by making it other than satisfying of itself. This time, the latest "digi-books" are aimed primarily at young readers. A generation at least has come up since Moby Dick was made to sing at that conference table. A generation and more of middle class children have been read to relentlessly from before birth. Indeed, reading has been bureaucratically endorsed, educationally analysed and promoted almost out of existence as a leisured pursuit among the educated classes. Bombarded throughout their adolescence with well intentioned, carefully catered messages from parents, librarians and the publishers of children's pap, meant as relentless reinforcement of their unique individuality and value, and the unassailable virtue of being young, these "young adults," have been raised to read as a duty, and yet seem inexplicably resistant to reading a book for pleasure. Denied nothing but a quiet afternoon and an unscheduled hour, they seem, most ungratefully, to prefer the conversation of their peers to the literature of their ancestors.

They must be wooed back to books, mustn't they? And so... they are being offered what again? Simpler stuff in brighter colors and with louder noise. Books must be made more like, well, other things, things the kids actually like, like movies and Youtube and this whole Internet business. And so the whales must be made to sing again! Only this time, the prose shouldn't be so hard, maybe. And so we get "vooks" that are immediately recognizable to those of us who remember the last attempt to make books "interactive," books that are little more than the latest Hellzapoppin' sideshow from the gray sages of corporate publishing: books that are not books, but bastardy video games, half-assed puzzles and lazy narratives plucked up and painted from the discard bins of fiction. The new, completely original "digi-books" thus tarted up and made to dance, have all the rather quaint if more than a little embarrassing fascination of a Fat Lady attempting to crunk.

Or put it another way, dear old uncle is dancing at the wedding again.

When will we learn to act our age?

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