A friend asked me how and why it is I find the time to still read novels despite the fact that none of us have time to do anything these days.
In last week’s New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott penned an interesting meditation on Susan Sontag’s consideration of photography as a fine art and today’s democratization of photography — with the ever-increasing plethora of iPhone apps, the lowering cost of dSLRs, and the one-click transformation of what used to be an entire afternoon in the dark room thanks to free Aperture and Lightroom presets. But it was a supplementary “block quote” from Sontag that caught my eye:
Virtually all the important aesthetic, moral and political problems — the question of “modernity” itself and of “modernist” taste — are played out in photography’s relatively brief history. William K. Ivins has called the camera the most important invention since the printing press. For the evolution of sensibility, the invention of the camera is perhaps even more important. It is, of course, the uses to which photography is put in our culture, in the consumer society, that make photography so interesting and so potent. In the People’s Republic of China, people don’t see “photographically.” The Chinese take pictures of each other and of famous sites and monuments, as we do. But they’re baffled by the foreigner who will rush to take a picture of an old, battered, peeling farmhouse door. They don’t have our idea of the “picturesque.” They don’t understand photography as a method of appropriating and transforming reality — in pieces — which denies the very existence of inappropriate or unworthy subject matter. As a current ad for the Polaroid SX-70 puts it: “It won’t let you stop. Suddenly you see a picture everywhere you look.”
Those of us who call ourselves photographers (and these days who doesn’t) are announcing a kind of visual appreciation, a palate of the eye. We look at life through a frame of colors, contrasts, background lighting, and geometric juxtaposition. For someone like me – who tends to lean toward portraits – it is a way to study the play of light as the 52 or so facial messages work their magic each and every millisecond to reveal or betray some deeper significance that is rooted in emotion.
In a slightly more complicated form, it is this same filter of we how observe that which surrounds us that keeps me reading novels despite all the hubbub about the end of literary fiction. I don’t know how else to put it — literature is a magical, mental language through which I record observations and reflections that are rarely shared in conversation, but yearn to be placed properly in print. The more actively I read novels the more vibrant this magical interpretation of the world around me.