The joys of being up close and personal

One lunchtime a few weeks ago, I went to Waterstones in Piccadilly to hear Nadine Gordimer talk about her wonderful new novel No Time Like the Present. I did it without thinking – without an obvious good reason. Indeed, there were good reasons to stay away. I knew Gordimer had said that the writer’s work is “the prince” and that it was a mistake to “confuse its worth by confronting oneself with the frog”. I was also aware that Gordimer’s friend Susan Sontag, when a teenager, had visited Thomas Mann (“God”) at his house in Pacific Palisades only to find that his comments about The Magic Mountain betrayed the book “with their banality”.

Gordimer was talking with Peter Florence, the director of the Hay Festival, who 25 years ago bet some poker winnings on the idea that people like to hear writers talk – and made the money back a thousandfold. He knows as well as anyone that people will pay to listen to a writer whose book they have read, intend to read, or, in some (perhaps the majority of) cases, have no intention of ever reading.

A few days later, I bumped into a friend who had just returned from his first literary festival. A successful hedge fund manager, he had attended the event only to persuade a woman he liked that he was the kind of person who attended literary festivals. He offered a usefully alien eye. The success of such events, he reckoned, lies in the fact that people enjoy feeling a sense of intimacy, or at least proximity, to “somebody who happens to have written a book” – as if “the genius would rub off on them”.

The identity of the artist as seer or sage is substantiated, rather than destroyed, when we see them before us on a podium. During his time at Harvard in the 1950s John Updike would stand in crowded lecture theatres in order “to hear, and to glimpse in the mysterious flesh” famous writers such as TS Eliot.

The excitement and gratitude he and his fellow students heaped on Eliot, he recalled, had “less to do with his rather sleepy-making discourse on poetic drama than with the fabulous descent of his vast name into an actual, visible, and mortal body”. The writer’s “physical presence”, Updike wrote, “is light from a star that has moved on” (ie past work). And yet the urge to get close to writer retains its appeal as “a seeking of a physical ritual to formalize the fact that we already are ... so well met”.

Physical rituals of this kind have become more highly valued not in spite of but in response to digital developments. The views of some writers are widely available, in some cases unavoidable – and yet literary festivals are booming. Events that are streamed for a non-paying audience usually succeed in drawing a paying audience as well. For Nick Harkaway, a novelist and the author of the forthcoming polemic The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, this is “entirely natural and unsurprising”.

“We’re not cognitive homunculi in flesh vehicles,” he explains. “Cognition is embodied, and humanity is as much immediately experienced as it is considered and thought.”

Harkaway thinks that we are still in the experimental stage of our relationship with digital technology. “We’re trying it on every aspect of our lives to see what it can do,” he says. Some things simply won’t prove as “satisfying to us in a non-immediate context: however many times you hear an author on a podcast, it’s still different to catch his or her eye – to engage them in person.”

Proponents of digital advances view this as “a sort of new-Luddite position”, held only by people who grew up in the pre-digital age. In Harkaway’s view, it’s less contingent and historical than that. “It’s about what we are,” he says. “We’ll be at war with ourselves if we try to pretend, like Spock on Star Trek, that we’re only cognitive.”

Harkaway’s sentiments were in close accordance with much of what I heard at the satsang with Zen Master Thích Nhat Hanh, held last week at the Royal Festival Hall. It was initially disappointing to be told that the Zen Master’s comments were being “live streamed on the internet” but, in the Harkaway-Hanh way of seeing things, you really did have to be there – not just because of the element of vast name/mortal body, but because Thích Nhat Hanh was keen to remind the audience that, too much of the time, we ignore or forget about our bodies. “It is wonderful to have a body,” he said.

The message was no less audible to those streaming the event but something was lost in transmission: they were being told about “the here and now”, about “collective energy”, while in the process of slighting one and being cut off from the other. Public events of this kind offer a sense of human intimacy and possibilities for human connection that cannot be replicated on digital platforms. When I told my fiancee that I was having difficulty working out why I spend so much time at debates and talks and lectures, she shot me a look of disappointment, then reminded me that we first met at a reading she gave in a bookshop.

‘The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World’ (John Murray, £20) is published in the UK on May 10

Peter Aspden is away

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