Thursday, December 30, 2010

Not Worth the Paper?

This morning Caroline McCarthy used her CNET News column, The Social, to run through the best seller numbers from Amazon.  The item that interested me the most was the following:

The most-gifted Kindle book on Amazon was "Decision Points," the memoirs of former President George W. Bush.

My interest in this particular result was probably primed by a remark I had quoted from Lisa Jardine on the subject of reading a book through an electronic device:

For everyday purposes I now find my electronic reader allows me to pursue a book I am enjoying wherever I go. I have to confess that I am reading Tony Blair's autobiography, purchased from my favourite online bookseller, on my iPad. Having spent much of the past week in airports and on planes, there is little doubt in my mind that this is far and away the most convenient way to read.

My reaction to this observation is worth reproducing:

Very little of my reading is a matter of starting on the first page and chugging my way through until the pages have been exhausted. I am always bouncing around the text I am reading. I suspect that Jardine approaches much of her reading the same way, in which case she dropped a subtle review of Blair's book on us. Whenever I read a biography, I often find myself looking back in the text to see if some event in childhood or youth had an impact on another event at a more advanced age. I wonder whether or not Jardine decided that it was not worth taking the time to look for such connections while reading Blair's memoirs!

This raises another point, which is about why we read in the first place. I suspect that many of those who read in airports and on planes do so as an antidote for idleness. However, one does not have to commit to full-out Derrida-style engagement to keep idleness at bay. Thus, I suspect that the print version of the magazine in which Jardine's columns appear (not to mention Blair's memoir) is probably far more suited to holding off idleness on a long flight than any text by Derrida could be (although I cannot avoid confessing that I made quite a lot of progress in Speech and Phenomena on one such flight)!

I recently read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review of Blair’s memoir in the last (December 23) issue of The New York Review of Books;  and I am now reading Joseph Lelyveld’s take on Decision Points in the current (January 13) issue.  I currently have so much to read that I have to confess that neither article has encouraged me to take on the text itself in any setting.  Indeed, the best part of Wheatcroft’s piece was the title (which I hope was his own selection), “NO Prime Minister!”

Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about Jardine’s approach to reading Blair, which, without intending to cast any aspersions on Jardine, I would probably call “context-free reading.”  From this point of view, I can see how well suited Decision Points would be to an electronic reader.  If there is any theme that unifies the narrative about Bush, it is his character trait as a man so guided by faith that he only had to consult his own heart about matters of right and wrong, regardless of any complexities of context surrounding the decision he had to make (particularly, as Lelyveld was quick to observe, complexities having to do with consequences).  From this point of view, a context-free approach would probably provide the most sympathetic setting for reading Bush:  If he never let context get in the way of his own heart, why should the reader?

This then raises my other point as to whether or not I would turn to Decision Points as an “antidote for idleness.”  While I am willing to grant that I have an any-port-in-a-storm attitude when my reading matter is limited, I try to stave off that attitude with advance preparation, particularly if I have to face the tedium of both airports and airplanes.  (I suspect this is one reason why I wear jackets with pockets large enough to accommodate The New York Review of Books.)  However, where long-distance travel is concerned, the last thing I want is reading matter likely to aggravate me, since I am trying to avoid being reminded of just how uncomfortable such travel can be;  and I suspect that aggravation would be my primary reaction to being exposed, once again, to an account by this former President of why he not only did what he did but continues (for the most part) to stand by the decisions he made.  Deciphering Derrida will always be challenging;  but it engages my mind with positive thoughts, which is far more than I can say about President Obama’s predecessor!

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