Let’s not pretend that our anxiety over the future of literature is anything more than self-interest

Right now, I’m sitting in the Brody Learning Commons, which has to be the coolest library on the Eastern Seaboard. You know how other colleges have student unions? Well, Hopkins doesn’t have one. Instead, the administration here was like, “What if we built a massive four-story library…but didn’t put any books in it?”

Never realized how much fun it could be to throw around a meaningless high-flown phrase like "the Human Spirit."
Never realized how much fun it could be to throw around a meaningless high-flown phrase like “the Human Spirit.”

The result was the Brody Learning Commons. It’s got a few books, for show, but largely it’s just couches, desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards, and all the other study-related accoutremonts that you find in libraries. And you’re allowed to drink coffee in it. The scene down here is totally see-and-be-seen. There’s the interior part, which is quiet. But if you’re sitting in the massive atrium, it’s all people chatting and having conversations in the hallway and covertly glancing at each other over the top of their laptops.

And, you know, it’s just kids. Eighteen to twenty-two year olds doing the stuff that they do. They’re certainly no brighter or stupider or more or less engaged than 18-22 year olds have been at any time in the post-WWII era. The things they do are different. I imagine that they spend less time reading and more time playing video games than an 18-22 year old would’ve in 1950. And, with the rise of streaming TV, they probably watch more television than an 18-22 year would’ve in 1995.

But they’re still human beings. They’re not empty vessels who are being passively filled up with content. They’re people, full of their own longings and thoughts and half-formed desires, who are trying to live their lives as best as they’re able.

And the lead-up here is that it’s true that fiction is not as pre-eminent an art form as it was a hundred years ago. And that is upsetting to me, because it means that it will be harder for me to make a living and gain readers. And it’s upsetting to established authors because they are less influential and less likely to be remembered.

But I think we’re being disingenuous when we cloak these fears by saying that we fear that the human spirit is being impoverished. It’s not that I don’t believe it is possible for the human spirit to be impoverished or enriched. And it’s not that I don’t think reading books is, somehow, an enlightening experience. And I’m just like every other writer, I get annoyed when some kid tries to say that playing Bioshock or watching Breaking Bad or listening to Bon Iver is, somehow, a richer experience than reading The Grapes Of Wrath, because it seems so manifestly true that reading fiction gives you something of you that other art forms do not.

But I think that’s the problem. When we’re talking about the human spirit, there’s really no giving and no taking. There’s no enriching and no impoverished. The growth of a soul is not something that is affected by outside stimuli, but those stimuli do not cause the transformation: they merely provide the fuel for it. Personal development–like education–is not something that is done to a person; it’s something that people do to themselves. And when we think about people in the abstract, it’s easy to convince ourselves that they are too stupid or too quiescent to manage their own lives. But when you look at them, you realize that they are no more or less alive than we are, and that they are not wrong in trusting their own intuitions regarding what media they need to consume.