The Role of the Book

I have spent much of the last six days cooling my heels through various plane flights (and the inevitably attendant airport delays), dawdling in various hotel rooms, and generally seeking ways to pass the time. My strategies for time-passage have nearly always revolved around books; I tend, for that reason, to travel with an average of more than 200% of my actual per-journey reading capacity, sort of a reading version of the eyes-bigger-than-stomach buffet dilemma.

This week, I managed to make it through most of what I carried, some of which was required class-reading (finishing The House of Mirth; starting A Lost Lady). My brain has gotten hung up, however, in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. There are a number of worthy reasons for this absorption: Stephenson’s voice is simultaneously riotous and accurate, rendering with deadly precision the details of the near-future merger of consumer choice and individual identity and the balkanization of both consumer preferences and residential communities (his invention in Snow Crash of the FOQNE — or franchise-owned quasi-national entity — and the “burb-clave” being grand examples). This kind of detail, at once funny and pointed, pushes Stephenson’s work beyond the standard — if you’ll pardon the characterization — adolescent male fantasies of most cyberpunk. If you’ve never read any Stephenson, go get Snow Crash. Right now. I’ll wait here.

The Diamond Age, however, adds something more to Stephenson’s previous critique of contemporary U.S. culture. Where Snow Crash could conceivably be accused of using its hero’s ethnicity in the same Orientalizing manner seen in Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, The Diamond Age attempts to interrogate the imperialist relationship between east and west through its representations of 21st century Shanghai, at once inescapably diverse and radically segregated. Moreover, where Snow Crash‘s tough teenage heroine, Y.T., could be interpreted as a Buffy-ized version of the ass-kicking, leather-clad objects of male pleasure and terror that pop up throughout cyberpunk (Gibson’s Molly being the ultimate case in point), The Diamond Age suggests, both through the detailed development of its heroine, Nell, and through the overwhelming force of the Mouse Army (composed of orphaned girls), an advanced critique of gender relations from the Victorian period forward.

What’s really got my brain hung up on the novel, though, is the role played within it by the eponymous Primer. Of the multiple possibilities I’ve encountered for the book’s future, possibilities imagined by writers, scholars, and technocrats alike, the Primer is without question my favorite. However much I may have coveted Y.T.’s skateboard, I covet this book more. “Printed” on smart paper, with a high-end rod logic processing system and a deeply interactive structure growing out of a foundation in traditional narrative, the Primer entertains, instructs, and nurtures its reader, teaching her not only facts and figures but also how to learn in the first place. The Primer guides Nell as she grows, growing with her, responding to the changing circumstances of her life, expanding its genre from traditional fairy tales to embrace a new kind of self-reflexivity in order to teach her the fundamentals of its own programming, and developing an increasingly complex and even porous relationship with the outside world. Stephenson makes an overwhelming case for the power of this book in its heroine’s development, a case that makes me wonder, given the confluence of my own current reading material: could Lily Bart have been saved, like the similarly motherless Nell, if she’d had access to the Primer?

Or, acknowledging the uncrossable barrier presented by the technology involved, were there any books, of the old print-on-paper variety, that could have saved Lily Bart?

3 thoughts on “The Role of the Book

  1. It seems to me that Jane Austen might have been a bit of a help to Lily. Of course, that’s somewhat self-evident. (It’s like saying, “If only she’d been reading Henry James…”)

    And in connecting the Wharton and Austen I’m reminded of your list of characters who drive you nuts. I’d like to put in a good word for Lily (and maybe Selden too). I’m one of those who like the both of them – I understand why others might be a wee bit consternated with the two, but hell, there’s always space in my book for overly wrought romance that never was or is. !!

    It’s like reading those doomed poets out there – while of course the melancholia is too much, having it be too much seems to be part of the essential point of it. Even if it’s bound to drive you batty before too long.

  2. You know, I was thinking Austen, but wondering if all those romantic novels in which True Love and Financial Security happen to coincide would only further confuse the issue for Lily. And that Austen not only adheres to but also absolutely believes in the marriage plot makes me a bit leery of handing her over to a (no longer quite so) young woman who’s expecting the solution to all her problems to come in the form of a husband. So I dunno.

  3. Incredibly oddly, I just finished The Diamond Age not long ago myself. I think you’re spot on about the Primer as the most immediately I-Want-One-appealing item of future tech I’ve seen in a long time. Plus, on the whole it’s a very interesting and thought-provoking play with the long term of post-Imperialist international politics; more so than Snow Crash which I liked but which felt a little too willfully teenage to me at times.

    One aspect of the Primer and the story which seems to embody skepticism about the limits of AI as well as a somewhat conservative argument about parenting — Nell’s Primer’s efficacy is the product of the single human intelligence she is interacting with as she reads the book. Basically, there’s not only a magic text but an “interpreter” who is doing the pedagogical work; and the most important thing about the interpreter (beyond the fact of her love for Nell) is her consistency — the girls who have either multiple-‘ractor interpreters or robot interpreters don’t become the quasi-superhero that Nell is raised into being. Basically, it’s having a consistent, loving parent that matters, it seems.

    Sorry to tear the discussion back away from Great Books…

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