Transubstantiation

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s Essay ‘Why bother?’ in his book “How to be Alone”.

Franzen says that those of us who read ‘substantive works of fiction’ sometimes do so in search of a sense of belonging that they lack in normal life. He puts himself into this category, and so do I. Those readers, he says, seek to commune with the authors of the novels they read; they don’t feel as if they belong to the real world and feel isolated, reading novels lends, nay gives, weight (Substance) to their lives.

He cites one Shirley Brice Heath, a Stanford English Professor whomhe talked to over lunch in Palo Alto.

I include this detail because I once lived there and mention of theirlunch together was enlivened by a clear picture of University Avenue, its restaurants and store-fronts. I don’t know where the author and his friend ate, almost certainly not on University Ave., but that memory was something I brought to the book where it coalesced with the prose and contrived to add weight to the words so that the memory and the prose became of one substance (transubstantiation? Jonathan and Shirley agree that religions are themselves substantive works of fiction) so that while it feel as if that sunny street were a part of the prose, in truth it was entirely mine. This is, I think, pat of Franzen’s point.

This substance, Heath adds, is most often transmitted verbally, and is felt to have permanence, “which is why”, she said, “computers won’t do it for readers”.

That last bit made me stop, of course. According to Ms Heath, I am not a ‘reader’ since my choice of works of fiction though substantial probably don’t fall into the substantive category. Michael Crichton is excluded, James Joyce is included; my last five books were by the following three authors: Neal Stephenson, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett. Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle might make it but Franzen had already had taken a side-swipe at ‘Nerds’.

Notice, though, that Franzen included Heath’s words on computers and readers in quotation marks. Maybe he doesn’t quite buy it either.

A couple of days ago I spent a whole afternoon and evening some technological thingummy for this website (round corners on the home page which don’t work on all browsers). I wasn’t pointing and clicking, however, I was writing. My tool of choice for this process (Apart from The Gimp which I had used previously to make the little round corner images) is a text editor, not Dreamweaver or, god forbid, FrontPage. What engaged me for so long that day was not simply the nice look of the Bitterjug.com home page with rounded boxes, but the way it would respond to the words I was writing. Computer programming, for that is largely what I was doing, is the closest thing we know of to magic (and my choice of authors clearly shows I yearn to live in a world inhabited by Enoch Root, Albus Dumbledoor and Rincewind).

My good friend Niels Grundtvig Nielsen once described his experience of the Linux operating system as, if I recall correctly, a literary one. Neal Stephenson himself has essayed at length on the subject of words versus graphics and gestures in our experience of computers, and how reading and writing avoids the insubstantiality of an experience mediated by someone else. That a literary experience adds substance to our lives is, as I read it, Franzen’s very theme.

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