by Andrea Scrima
Try it: try talking about the subject of reading without drifting off into how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information. I, along with the majority of people I know whose reading habits were formed long before the advent of digital magazines and newspapers, Google Books, blogs, RSS feeds, social media, and Kindle, usually feel I’m only really reading when it’s printed matter, under a reading lamp, with the screen and phone turned off. But the reality is that I do a vast amount of reading online.
Unsurprisingly, my attention span has gotten jumpy: I click from one article to another, suddenly remember a mail I need to write, consult the online dictionary on a browser that has at least thirty-five open tabs, and before I reach my destination, I see that I have several new Facebook notifications and check these first. By the time I click on the dictionary, a half hour has been lost and I can no longer remember the word I intended to look up. The result of all this is the humbling admission to a new handicap: the need for an Internet access-blocker with a Black List.
For my seventeen-year-old son and his growing brain, the potential for relentless distraction is far more pernicious. This is a kid who was read to every night of the first thirteen years of his life for at least an hour at bedtime, more often than not longer, and yet the dominance of smart-phone technology in his young life means that the greater part of his access to the world of ideas now takes place online.
I’m not going to explore the anxiety of parenthood in the digital age or argue the pros and cons of the Internet here; I myself am far too entrenched to ponder a life without it. But what strikes me is the profound change we’ve undergone in our collective ability to think critically. In an era of fake news and AI technology sophisticated enough to produce video footage that looks like the real thing, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: the ability to read is not the only thing we have to salvage for the next generation; we have to save, from oblivion, our ability to read between the lines.
I have a storage space full of paintings in Berlin. Many of them are quite large, built to a scale that defined me as an American artist without my ever fully realizing it. It did not feel megalomaniacal, or imperialist, or in any way self-aggrandizing to build the biggest frames that would fit through the door, down the stairs, in the freight elevator. It didn’t even feel particularly American; it simply felt like the amount of space I needed to do what I wanted to do. The paintings were, in fact, understatements consisting of subtle superimpositions: traces of lines and layers articulated as carefully construed reconstructions that spoke to the deceptive nature of appearance. In other words, the impression they made at first glance was gradually undermined as a closer look, and an investigation of the logic of layering as evidenced in the surface, revealed that things were not at all as they seemed.
Art and literature are nevertheless products of their time, and American painting is no exception. Although I was adept at reading between the lines in my own work, and at creating a visual vocabulary that spoke to this interstice, I still had certain blind spots regarding the larger context in which I’d come to age. It first emerged in the late 1960s that the CIA was covertly operating and investing in national and international cultural organizations, including the Congress for Cultural Freedom (founded in West Berlin in 1950). Its express agenda was to infiltrate and influence ostensibly autonomous artistic and intellectual activity. The aim was to foster American arts and letters as the ultimate expression of a free Western capitalist democracy and world power—in stark contrast to the stunted, censored, hounded artists and writers of the totalitarian state and more particularly, in the case of painting, the pitiful products of Soviet-style Socialist Realism. In her book The Cultural Cold War, adapted from an earlier publication titled Who Paid the Piper? from 1999, British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders revealed the extent to which CIA funding contributed to the commercial success of the Abstract Expressionist artists of the second half of the 20th century, whose large-scale works were thought to embody the quintessence of freedom and limitless creativity. Yet while abstraction leaves room for interpretation—a fact that made these works peculiarly vulnerable to political instrumentalization—, and while the post-war generation, many of whom had fought on European and Asian fronts, certainly wasn’t free of anti-communist zeal, it’s doubtful that the imperial will the ideologues read into (or imposed upon) these powerful paintings bore any resemblance to the inner battles fought by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Barnett Newman.
Manipulation and deception are not always imposed from the top down, through political censorship; sometimes they occur within the cultural industries themselves. The outspoken and unapologetic writer and intellectual Dubravka Ugrešić watched as her native language, Serbo-Croatian, was pried apart into a cluster of separate languages cleansed of the centuries of their intermingling. In the aftermath of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, she criticized the writers that rallied together to forge new nationalist mythologies and diagnosed this as a form of regression. The Croatian press dubbed Ugrešić one of “Five Witches” and attacked her for her “unpatriotic” opposition to the new regime. When the pressure on Ugrešić became intolerable, she embarked on a series of academic fellowships and residencies abroad, and eventually settled in Amsterdam. Reflecting on the ways in which her colleagues failed to live up to what she regarded as the writer’s responsibility to record events accurately and to resist the falsification of history, Ugrešić wrote: “[This regression] is why I have passionately propagated the notion of transnational literature, which could be a new cultural platform, a literary territory for those writers who refuse to belong to their national literatures, or to belong to their national literatures only.”
When Ugrešić proposed a transnational territory that could serve as a kind of home for a certain type of writer, she was not only referring to the dangers of nationalist ideology in literature, but to similar effects wrought by a publishing industry based on commercial profit. When books require a high degree of popular appeal to gain access to larger readerships, and when anything that doesn’t promise desired sales is effectively censored, it’s the self-celebratory, mainstream narratives that prevail. Here, it’s not an oppressive government that silences the intellectual, but market forces that relegate the more difficult and, consequently, oftentimes more worthwhile literary production to the fringe—in anticipation of which a kind of self-imposed censorship arises, an a priori capitulation to market demands. And it’s precisely this fringe that is essential to the preservation of literature’s autonomy, a territory that is growing increasingly endangered.
The issue, as I see it, is how—in a political environment increasingly dominated by the breakdown of language and meaning—we intend to preserve our ability to think critically, and how we propose to foster this ability in the next generation. We need words that speak to the dire state of the current media landscape, words that provide new keys for assessing, deciphering, and analyzing conflicting and competing information. A growing skepticism regarding the reliability and trustworthiness not only of the means of their distribution through news channels, editorial boards, and social media, but toward the veracity of the texts and images themselves, has, on a very basic existential level, changed the way in which we perceive and engage with the information raining down upon us.
Reading helps adolescents learn a number of crucial things: how to analyze character and to differentiate between the human being and the persona he or she presents to the public; how to interpret the emotional dynamics of a given situation and to detect duplicity and deception; how to see through intimidation and hypocrisy and the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways authority and power assert themselves. These are things they will have little direct experience of until they reach adulthood, but will urgently need to understand and become familiar with as their childhoods are cut shorter and shorter in an increasingly complicated and challenging world. Essentially, psychological understanding is the very skill that can help them combat the forces of distraction designed to deflect their attention from what is really going on around them.
While the gadgets we’ve created for our amusement and convenience were initially designed for the purposes of entertainment, social interaction, and the improvement of everyday tasks, there is no longer any doubt that they are also uniquely suited to serve very different agendas. Slaves to the beep and the click, we are wholly in their power now, reduced to the evolutionary biology responsible for the autonomic workings of our nervous systems and helpless to the ways in which they appeal directly to and, indeed, target the reward centers of our brains.
It’s simple, but it’s crucial: we need to equip the younger generation with the critical tools they will need to learn to read between the lines of the agendas that will inevitably be served up to them. Even my seventeen-year-old has discovered that his digital life exerts a magnetic pull he’s not always able to control; even he has understood that he is, among other things, a targeted consumer. Sooner or later there arrives in every young reader’s life a moment in which they discover the mirroring effect of literature: the startling experience of a book, written before their birth by an author who is perhaps already long since dead, spelling out something they have themselves felt and experienced intimately, but have never been able to articulate clearly. It is the moment of the self recognizing the self, and it’s a powerful moment in the development of a young person’s mind. Suddenly, he or she sees the point to all these written words. And so while libraries are still foreign territory to my son, he is learning, again, to read books, actual books, and he’s beginning to understand that without the work of these people—all these independent writers, historians, journalists, and whistleblowers—, often undertaken at considerable personal risk, we’d be at the mercy of the narratives propagated by those who would gain most from them.
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Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil Press, New York); a German translation titled Wie Viele Tage was published by Literaturverlag Droschl (Graz, Austria) in 2018. She has written literary criticism for The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, Music & Literature, The Scofield, manuskripte, Schreibheft, Schreibkraft, The Millions, and Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, among others, and is working on a second novel.
 In 1967, the Saturday Evening Post published ex-CIA agent Tom Braden’s confirmation of these operations.
 Stonor Saunders, Frances, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, New York, The New Press, 2013.
 Tax, Meredith, “Five Women that Won’t Be Silenced,” The Nation, May 10, 1993. http://www.dubravkaugresic.com/writings/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Five-Women-That-Wont-Be-Silenced.pdf
 “A Conversation with Dubravka Ugrešić,” Music & Literature, No. 6, 2015