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?”