Hilariously dumb trend piece sparks hilariously dumb trend war

How can I hit on her if I don't know what she's reading? Ask her where she played field hockey?

Earlier this week, we discussed the possibility that the trend piece is becoming a new subgenre of newspaper writing, which I intend to start calling Speculative Journalism: stories that could be, but for which there is no actual evidence. As if to confirm our suspicions,* Mark Oppenheimer published this piece in Slate, in which he worries that the increasing popularity of the Kindle will make it impossible to flirt with strangers based on what books they are reading. “As the Kindle and Nook march on,” he writes, “people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.” Oppenheimer’s position is obviously somewhat tongue-in-check. That doesn’t stop it from also being head-in-ass, though, as Erik Hayden and Eleanor Barkhorn pointed out in separate Atlantic articles. Thus began a war of words, and by “words” I mean specifically the words “digital age” and “social networking,” sandwiched within a series of hilariously inept arguments that culminate in yesterday’s wounded defense from Oppenheimer.

Let’s start by saying aloud what we are all thinking, in case only thinking it was preventing anyone from hitting on us: Oppenheimer’s thesis is dumb. Presumably if books are so important to us that we use them as the basis for romantic interest, when we go into somebody’s home we can just ask them what they’re reading. If we don’t know them well enough to ask, we should probably question why we are in their home in the fist place.

Of course, the main thrust of Oppenheimer’s lament is the value of books as a tool for striking up conversations with strangers, apparently on public transportation. In this situation, though, the Kindle is still not an obstacle. First, even the novice pickup artist will tell you that the question, “What are you reading?” is a much better way to start a conversation than the statement, “I like that book.” Second, despite recent news that e-book sales now exceed sales of hardcover books, I don’t believe that the attractive young person reading a book in the subway is in danger of disappearing. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I’m pretty sure that 55 year-old jazz listeners are the only people buying Kindles and hardbacks anyway.

Oppenheimer’s essay is really just a paean to the sentimental value of the book as object. That’s the theme, and the form is speculative journalism—i.e. the trend piece—in which whatever the author wants to talk about is set in some stylized version of This Modern World like, say, the digital age. The story isn’t supposed to be real so much as true, which is A) journalistically questionable and B) tacitly ignored—in this case by both Oppenheimer and by the people who respond to him.

Barkhorn, for example, escalates the war of the imagined worlds by claiming that the impenetrability of the Kindle is counterbalanced by—can you guess?—social networking sites:

[I]n this era of social media we broadcast our cultural preferences habits [sic] more loudly than we ever did before, thanks to status updates on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, Gchat, and so on. In the past week, followers of my Twitter feed learned that I read the New York Times Styles section cover to cover and I enjoy watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on bus trips.

First off, that’s why I don’t follow you on Twitter, Eleanor Barkhorn.* Second, the potentially interested strangers whom Oppenheimer is talking about presumably do not follow you on Twitter, either. While Barkhorn’s attempt to see Oppenheimer’s e-book reader and raise him a social networking site is a sweet trend-writer power play, it doesn’t make any actual sense. Fortunately, logical coherence is not a hallmark of the genre; in fact, within trend stories, it’s pretty much considered a flaw.

Oppenheimer follows that convention of the form in his response. After rightly pointing out that we don’t all follow one another on Twitter, he sticks it right back in sense’s butthole with this analogy:

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how many conversations you have started with people about what’s on their iPod. I am guessing none, and not just because he/she is plugged into the earbuds. But back when people had record albums lying around, they were conversation pieces.

Actually, I do not converse with people who are listening to their iPods precisely because they are plugged into earbuds. That’s the whole point of walking around with an iPod, and why I will sometimes wear my headphones even when there is no music playing through them. More importantly, though, at no point in history did people have “record albums lying around” on the train.

Again, maybe we’ve lost an entree to conversation around the home, but in that context you can still start an interesting dialogue with a stranger by saying, “Hey, I’m in your house.” Better yet, you could say, “I couldn’t help but notice you have Slate in your browser history. Maybe you’ve already mentioned this on Twitter, but have you noticed that much of what they write about seems made up?”

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. Awesome. Two things on Slate:

    1. What’s that, two NYC summertime-flirting pieces in a week? Didn’t they just do some moronic gentleman’s guide to leering at women in New York? August is a slow news month.

    2. Does it not infuriate you that Jack Shafer has a career of calling out mainstream media outlets for running phony trend pieces ON SLATE? NYT and WaPo probably only run these pieces of speculative journalism to compete with places like Slate, and to generate online ad revenue (I think). So where does he get off? Or more importantly, where does Slate’s editorial staff get off playing both sides of this debate?

  2. My favorite part of this examination of all things specious and precious is “. . . followers of my Twitter feed . . . “. “Those who drink at the firehose of the Big Book of Me” could not be more apt.

    Followers of my Twitter feed will find it absent. I’m trying not to be a twit.

  3. Great post. I need, from Combat!, at least one essay per week that doesn’t focus on the bumblefuck that is modern American politics.

  4. I can’t tell what this post is about; but I find it ridiculous, and intellectually convenient (which is worse), that internet writers, particularly those that aren’t widely read, are so defensive at criticism of the rapidity with which technology is changing media and how we relate to one another (The Awl provides a great example in their recent posts about Garrison Kealor’s lamentations on the declining publishing industry). Bloggers are so quick to defend their own medium, their own significance, that they don’t see their medium as an organ of a larger body. It’s a lot like the lower middle class voting Republican because they think the American Dream still applies to them.

    I challenge anybody to demonstrate how exactly – aside from destined-for-longevity cultural treasures such as Shit My Dad Says – new media has improved anything. Do we have a more responsible political system? Is our world a safer and more tolerant one? Does a child born into poverty today have a better chance of escaping it than she did 25 years ago?

    Yes, the internet and digital technology makes it easier for nobodies to research and publish. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    Maybe … just maybe… it’s worthwhile to take a step back, and a breath, and think a little bit, and discourse a little bit, about how new technologies and forms of communication are impacting civil society. It took centuries for previously significant societal tropes and forms of cultural discourse to migrate and impact the world; these days there are NGOs dedicated to bringing laptops – a technology less than 20 years old which is accompanied by complex environmental and individual health problems – to the 3rd world. Really? We can’t commit to an AIDS relief policy that lasts more than 4 years, but we can commit to laptops. They’re fun! How did anybody ever do high school, or college, or a career, or a newspaper, or great literature, without one?!?!?

    Sure, whatshisface’s article on the Kindle is retarded… but regretting the passage of previously meaningful social and cultural realities isn’t inherently retarded. You know what? I think it’s nice to look around the bus or train and see what other people are reading. I also like not knowing anything about a person’s current life when I bump into them after not seeing them for a while.

    It’s worth considering what we might all miss someday and what our grandchildren won’t know to.

Leave a Comment.