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Rebooting culture: a heady start to Saturday

April 25, 2010 |  7:00 am

On the "Rebooting Culture" panel at the Festival of Books on Saturday, L.A. Times Book Editor David Ulin opened the discussion by recognizing this moment in time as one of intense cultural shifts, affecting readers, writers and narrative itself.

The panel featured Ander Monson, Nicholas Carr and David Shields, three writers actively engaged in examining narrative form and how our current fragmentary, fully-wired lifestyle affects what and how we read. 

Monson began by describing his latest project, “Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir,” a memoir that is a collage of 150 fragments and a website; the two pieces pick up the narrative from each other. Monson began to see ways that memoir is actually more communal than individual -- yet while everyone’s life story may be essentially the same, that doesn't diminish each person's need to tell their story.

Also experimental in form, David Shields’ book "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," calls for writers to stop being hamstrung by traditional ideas of appropriation, plagiarism and copyright law, all while obliterating the line between fiction and nonfiction. “Reality Hunger” is made up of 618 passages -- 45% of which he took from other sources, tweaking each like a remixer. While he didn't want to include citations, his publisher insisted; they appear in the back of the book, in tiny print, with a dotted line on the pages so they might be cut out and thrown away.

Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows" is a book-length exploration inspired by his 2008 Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"  In his introductory comments, he described how the Internet is feeding our natural cognitive tendency to "jump around," and how our thinking is being retrained at a deep cellular level. If the everyday tools of culture are changing our brains, are we losing the skills for extended concentration -- particularly, for reading?

Shields argues that fiction no longer fits Kafka’s dictum that a book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us. Only “the thinnest membrane between writer and reader” can do this. If fiction isn't this membrane, he argues, nonfiction can be.

Monson asked panelists whether they believed the novel as a form was on its way out or whether we're  losing interest in narrative altogether. Shields strongly believes that the novel -- with its traditional ideas of setting, character and plot -- does not reflect the world. The books he has loved and taught include a multitude of stories, but not one overarching narrative. But Sheilds' was just one voice on the panel: Carr cautioned against extrapolating from personal preference and denigrating all traditional narrative -- he had recently read Thomas Hardy’s "Return of the Native," published in 1878, and enjoyed it, finding it  emotionally true. And Monson observed, "the book is [still] a useful technology."

The writers conceded that art by its very nature undermines what went before. Ulin observed that Monson’s unconventional layout and linked style is now part of our familiar visual currency in a way it wasn’t 10 years ago.

 Ulin pointed out that despite all the speculation about what the fragmentation of culture means, the three writers on the panel had, after all, published books.

-- Chris Daley is a contributor to the LA Times Books section.

Photo, from left: David Shields, Nicholas Carr, David L. Ulin and Ander Monson disrupt the conventional narrative of a blog post by leaving before a decent photo could be taken. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg