Around the 1992 northern winter solstice, my partner and I arrived in Cairo, having just made a pilgrimage to Mt Sinai, and with no plans to stay longer than needed to see the Cairo Museum. But on the first evening we ate vego takeaway from a cheap café, and overcome by the runs, didn’t go far from our cheap hotel for days. Grounded with nothing to read, after the high of non-stop travel for weeks, I found myself looking forward to each visit, on his rounds, of the cleaner. Though I knew no Arabic and he spoke next to no English, we made do with eye contact, gestures and shy smiles. Unlike so many Muslim men, he wasn’t scandalised by my shaved head. My partner couldn’t resist teasing me about Abou – until one day, seeing my health had improved, Abou beckoned me to follow him, down a corridor and into a room little larger than a closet. As I gazed with both longing and ambivalence at a lettuce stored on his chest of drawers (salad had caused my malady), Abou opened the top drawer and, grinning, urged me to dig in. Amongst travel guides, phrasebooks and novels in French, German, Spanish and other languages, I found an English version of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. I knew the name; he’d translated stories by Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904), an explorer who’d converted to Islam, lived as a nomad, and died in a flash flood in the desert. Then I read Gore Vidal’s back-cover blurb: “Bowles has glimpsed what lies back of our sheltering sky…an endless flux of stars so like those atoms which make us up that we experience not only horror but likeness.” Abou urged me to choose more books, but I was satisfied.
Imagine, instead, my reaching that hotel with an iPad in my backpack: more books to choose from than I could read in a decade, yet they’re fully portable; so the cleaner’s friendly smile barely distracts me from my e-book smorgasbord. I leave Cairo, having read only fragments, none of which resonated with my recent travels; yet time passes faster now I can take my library with me. Notice how my world is shrinking! We’ve come to expect increasing choice in our capitalist Western bubble. But just how vital it is comes down to what our so-called options consist of. A scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s heartbreaking film, The Hurt Locker, nails this issue. A bomb tech on leave from Iraq is pushing a trolley down the aisle of a hangar-sized American supermarket. Used to making split-second life–death decisions every day, he stares helplessly at a wall of assorted cereal boxes that all look the same, then picks one the same way he risks his life on the job: without thinking. The irony being that this choice won’t make any difference. (If they all contain added sugar, salt and genetically modified grain, ‘choice’ means no more than ingrained/conditioned taste, or counts only as a vote for the sexiest marketing campaign.)
The Sheltering Sky still sits on my shelf (between more acclaimed novels, by Bernhard and Bronte). One of my favourite reads of all time, it may not have made such a deep impression if I’d read it at home, or if my ex and I had been more compatible (Bowles depicts an ailing marriage). But I spent the rest of my Cairo convalescence engrossed in it. And opening it now, I recall, along with its mood of menace, the vast spaces of the Egyptian desert, and Abou’s gentle benevolence. Eighteen years on, the ageing pages feel fragile, made from the corpses of trees: potential compost, not landfill like each doomed-to-be-outmoded e-reader, and yet, the survival of its kind necessitates necropolis-sized warehouses full of books, few of which may ever be cherished as much as my copy of The Sheltering Sky; books selected for publication not by love but by consensus.
There was a time when publishers could follow their hearts (still true of small-enough presses) without obstruction from sales and marketing. And today, those of us who don’t mind consuming the middle-of-the-road reads committee votes can breed (including inoffensive if forgettable prizewinners and some collectively edited journals and anthologies) may recognise little if any distinction between art and politics; may think ourselves highly educated and knowingly postmodern.
At the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival, on a panel called ‘Who Needs a Publisher Anyway’, a charismatic futurist (and what’s that if not a PC version of a soothsayer?) warned that there’s a five-year window for authors wanting to publish ‘book books’ (as distinct from the collaborative, homogenous, never-ending alternatives the Web has spawned). Immersion in online culture supports such a perspective, and why not feed the cyber-hordes’ need for a ‘thought leader’? But some writers like solitude or they’d produce scripts instead of novels. They don’t crave collaboration; just like not all consumers want their milk homogenised (while others don’t know or have simply forgotten that cream used to float to the top). And, even if it’s harder to find, you can still buy the old kind (though neither my Microsoft Word program nor The Macquarie Dictionary lists ‘unhomogenised’), because our culture strives to provide as many options as possible – if only for the consumer. Does anyone consult factory-farmed cows about their preferences? Who would choose to be used as a lactating machine, having been artificially inseminated by force only to have each newborn wrenched away with freakish frequency, until early death follows exhaustion? It seems, in our profit-driven climate, that two main options exist (exemplified by our political system, though at least that’s begun to shift) – you can choose to either remain ignorant or become desensitised: shelter yourself from harsh facts or detach from them. The other options – activism, abstinence etc. – consign you to a crank minority. If you prefer the bliss of ignorance, you can live on fast food, fast fiction etc.; if you opt for detachment, you can live in your intellect, subscribe to Darwinian logic (survival of the fittest) and rationalise cruelty to edible animals because we’re the dominant species or think we are (even if viruses can mutate with deadly rapidity); which reminds me of one of the more memorable mss I’ve read in recent months. As yet unpublished – it doesn’t slot neatly into a category – Michael Alan’s Ergo Sum is set in the US in a near future in which corporations at the top of the food chain manage their human resources by computer – sci-fi or social realism? A rocket-science subplot might define its niche on the e-bookshelf.
The boundary between author and reader has begun to dissolve, the thought-leading futurist on the beyond-publishers panel told us. Indeed – as if to offset our growing disconnection from wild nature? And if or when boundaries blur between reader and device to the point that humans begin to morph into cyborgs, writers’ festivals worldwide will doubtless host panels to debate the pros and cons (and boost sales). Call it lateral thinking, or collectivism vs individualism, but amid the interactive din, who will still be listening to the sounds of the organic web of life; the roar of storms and rising seas, the groan of tectonic plates shifting, the beating of wings just before butterflies, bees and even birds become extinct?
More than three decades ago, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera wrote: ‘One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived (p. 147).’