Since the end of the AAAs I’ve had a chance to read two pieces which touch on a central preoccupation of mine: the “different speeds at which we do research, and how certain technical forms enable or disable some speeds and not others”:/2007/10/03/pace-layering-as-research-method/. The two pieces in question were “twitter is fucking retarded”:http://ldopa.net/2008/11/11/twitter-is-fucking-retarded/ and “At Day’s Close”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/24/books/review/24LEWISKR.html by Roger Ekirch. One is a thoughtful — and bracing — skewing of Twitter, and the other is a cultural history of the night in early modern Europe.
You can probably see this coming: I also think Twitter is retarded. It is the ultimate realization of American society’s shift from an expressive individualism that sees art as the exteriorization of the subjectivity of the creator to a more banal commitment to the idea that any ‘content’ made by someone must be valuable and valorized simply because they made it. Perhaps my skepticism for Twitter is the pot calling the kettle black or the narcissism of small differences — as a blogger who has shared my waffle recipes with the world it may sound strange for me to take the high road when it comes to aesthetics. But still.
At Day’s Close, on the other hand, is an elegant, monomaniacal work that took two decades to complete. Saying it is ‘about the night’ does not really do justice to it. One chapter on illlumination at night, for instance, moves systematically through different kinds of light: oil lamps, candles, rushes, and torches. It then moves on to Unusual Forms Of Illumination, such as the bodies of particularly greasy sea birds used in the Orkney Islands as oil lamps simply by sticking wicks down their throats. This is followed by sections on the moon, starlight, and finally illumination of the night by the milky way. The next section then discussions seeing things at night and ends with individual discussions on navigation at night by hearing, touch (groping in the dark), and smell. It is obsessively thorough and, in the hands of a stylist as accomplished as Ekirch, thoroughly enjoyable.
If Twitter is the nightmare of corduroyed professors everywhere then At Day’s Close is the fantasy book that many of us dream of writing: the solitary scholar locked in his study, dismissed by his peers as a hopeless eccentric, emerges one day with a manuscript that will be read by thousands and be remembered forever. Here is romantic authorship in the scholarly mode.
And yet in a way there is something terrible about At Day’s Close as well. I know that I will never spend two decades writing a single book and nothing else — and not just because I have to hop online and update my waffle recipe page. This is a model of scholarship that is admirable but also a little unrealistic for many of us. Simply put, not everyone is an ‘eggs in one basket and watch that basket’ sort of person. Shorter genres are appealing and the ‘all or nothing one glorious moment’ of scholarship is romantic but also, I think, vaguely unhealthy. Not that I am saying Ekirch is unhealthy — I’ve never met the guy — just that the vision of scholarship that he inspires in me is one which, while attractive on the surface, may in the long term be less appetizing than it first appears.
All of which is to say that if we are going to get down on the short end of the writing spectrum (i.e. Twitter) perhaps we should took a good hard look at the the long end and really wonder just how appetizing it is — especially for those of us who do not have the skill and dedication of Ekirch.