The other day I asked my Facebook "friends" if they thought Anna Karenina was a good book. I'm distrustful of long novels, not because they're all bad but because many of them are bad, and it's a SIGN of sloppiness--perhaps too many characters and no plot; perhaps five page passages describing somebody's garden. It happens. Most books have one emotional thrust, and one meaning, and most stories, when told cleanly, simply do not take up 800 pages. I'm also distrustful of classics, because people very often read them just to tick them off the "Read this to feel more bourgeois" list. But I like Tolstoy, and as I didn't want to read 800 pages simply to decide for myself, I thought I'd ask.
I got exactly what I wanted. Scott, my old dissertation supervisor, not only recommended the book to me, but told me which translation had the best prose. To quote him, he's "distrustful of modern translations because they seem to be written by theorists and read poorly." Also, according to him, "Wordsworth Classics suck."
I respect his opinion and bow to his wisdom in most things to do with literature. He is a very good literary critic, academic, and a superb writer. Everyone should read his first novel, The History of Luminous Motion.
Anyway, I got what I wanted from the post, but I also had my old High School principal telling me I was a philistine, because I didn't like MOST long books. She went on to list a very eclectic selection of books from her "Read this to feel more bourgeois" list, telling me they could "teach much about plot balance and structure". She says this in her authority as... um... yeah... someone who's read a lot of bourgeois books, I guess. Anyway, most of the books she listed are quite good, but I didn't say I hated long books, I said I distrust them and I hinted that I have no interest in feeling more bourgeois. I value NOT feeling bourgeois, and I despise snobs. Snobs, the wilfully ignorant, and those unwilling to empathise, are the three kinds of people in this world whom I genuinely hate. It should be said that racists and sexists and whatnot fall into the latter two categories in my opinion.
And I dare say you can't have much understanding of the arts, let alone society, while maintaining any form of snobbery. They just aren't compatible, because snobbery requires a disconnection from humanity (not exactly what good art is made of) and a worship of the subduction of most of humanity (not exactly lovely stuff).
This all set me to wondering, why is she, why are any of my high school acquaintances, on Facebook? I hated high school. Ever see the show Daria? (My favourite show. Very funny and well observed. Watch it!) That's how I felt at high school. I was a very similar teenager to Holden Caulfield, like a cross between him and Daria. I hated most of the teachers, I hated most of the students, and I hated the whole damn time in my life.
The conversation with my old principal reminded me of why. And the fun wasn't over. Telling my principal off for calling me a philistine brought an adverse reaction from old high school acquaintances. Apparently having "respect for one's roots" involves maintaining the worship of old authority figures who taught me nothing except how to talk my way out of detention. And even that skill I had to learn just by practise. I don't think she meant to teach me at all.
I admit that I shouldn't have said, "Well, I did study it. I do have degrees to prove I studied it," because people don't respond well to talk about education. I never said University was the only way to get an education. I don't believe that. I never said having a certificate makes me more knowledgeable than the next guy. I'm not a snob. I do suggest that having devoted so much time in my life to learning something, I'd have to be a special kind of idiot not to have picked up a few things along the way.
People are prone to disrespect of artistic pursuits. If a mathematician told someone to stop telling him he didn't know about math, because he's a mathematician, no one would say boo. And if someone said to a physicist, "Well, I think any true physicist would be more interested in Quantum Mechanics and less interested in [insert theoretical field here] and I dare say you're quite the physics philistine, sir," that person would look like an idiot, especially if they were just some random high school principal talking to an old student who had since become a physicist.
And far more importantly, I was reminded how elitist and hateful people are when it comes to matters of taste. Who cares whether I enjoy long books? I never said I didn't in my FB post, but what if I had? What if I only enjoyed children's literature? What if I thought Whinnie the Pooh was the best book ever written? All that would make me, much like anything else I could say, is just another person who doesn't deserve to be scoffed at.
The conversation drew home something hideous about Facebook, which is that it's not a collection of people you like, but of people you know. As such, it is the exact same form of popularity contest that I detested so much in high school. And it happens for a similar reason. It is a neurological fact that people read shallowly on the internet (again I point readers towards The Shallows by Nicholas Carr) especially in forums, and respond without the same mental barriers in place that create not just social grace, but an empathetic reaction to what we're responding to, forcing us to imagine, if only fleetingly, walking in the shoes of the person to whom we're responding. Internet reading does not allow for that without deliberate care upon the reader/respondent's part. In high school you're thrust together out of necessity and many bonds are formed out of peer pressure. Facebook friend collecting smacks of the same ugly thing. It is also a sociological fact that teenagers create social niches far more readily than adults, and are prone to judging themselves, and others, with minimal reflection. Note: I did not say all teenagers commonly do this. I said they're prone to, as a whole, which means most of them do it considerably more often than most adults.
As for high school "friends", I hated high school, largely because it's a time where one is thrust into a popularity contest amidst the socially judgmental. Once again, I refer to the show Daria. That's how I saw myself, and how I saw the people. And now, on Facebook I have collected dozens of high school acquaintances, many of whom I barely remember at all. Even at a high school reunion, if I were there as some form of self-torture, I wouldn't recognise most of them, so why do their smiling profile pictures greet me every time I log into the old FB? What's the point of all that crap?
As a sensitive person I can't turn off my desire to make people happy, or to make them like me. As a person who's lived the life I have I can't let go of my fear of becoming cold-hearted. As such, I find popularity contests not only morally and philosophically detestable, but genuinely hurtful.
Facebook is a popularity contest. Posts are written in the hope of getting "likes", and we feel validated by the fact that so many people we've "friended" have acknowledged us. Most people there don't know us at all. Most of my Facebook "friends", don't know or care that in real life I'm considered warm and friendly. People like me, and I like people, largely because the only criteria I'll ever use to judge someone's value is whether or not they're kind. That said, I'm choosy with my company, as I'm precious with my time.
So in Facebook I have something I hate (a popularity contest) among many people I don't know who don't know me, and it's a waste of my time.
I wish I could say I had no interest in those who have no interest in me. But I can't say that. I'm too sensitive for that, and I intend to remain that way. It's part of what makes me friendly in real life, and it's just one more reason to hate Facebook.
Without getting out the old counting fingers, I probably have twenty to thirty people whom I'd genuinely call a friend, and I reserve that word not just for people I'd share a drink with, but people I'd rush into a burning building for, and who I think would do the same for me. That's a good number and I'm happy with it, so why are 168 people on Facebook?
There's only one answer I can come up with, and that is that I've been suckered by social pressures into entering a virtual popularity contest. I write this because articulating it to myself, and making my thoughts public, will make me feel honour bound to spend less time there, reserving it for the sacred purpose of knowing when it's a friend's birthday without having to get off my ass and write on my calendar.