The London Olympics are drawing to a close, and British politicians are falling over themselves trying to capitalise on the popular success of the games. At the moment, everyone seems to be competing to insist that we need more sport in our schools, and perhaps even as much as two hours of compulsory physical education a day.
I think that this is drawing the wrong lesson entirely, as if a countryman or woman winning a Nobel Prize for literature would mean that everyone should start writing a novel for two hours a day. I would suggest the following as a better way of looking at things.
1. Follow your passion, and share it with the world, for we all find it uplifting to watch people trying their best to do something difficult.
2. Society as a whole should support people following their passion, be it Kayak racing, or translating Icelandic poetry.
And that’s it.
I feel uncomfortable with the idea of geek culture, on principle. The reason I self-identify as a geek is because I have interests and enthusiasms which other people do not share. I persist with them anyway, because I don’t often care as much about the conventional wisdom as I do about satisfying my personal wishes. For me, that is what a geek is. Someone who is sometimes willing to look ridiculous to other people.
At the moment, as the internet is transforming our culture, geeks are fashionable. Which, by my definition, is a contradiction in terms.
Tribes have been around for a long time, but I have never consciously wanted to be a part of one. And the new media-friendly style of geekdom on offer seems to me to be a form of tribalism, with its expectation that all geeks like collecting Star Wars mini-figures, and have played many hours of Dungeons and Dragons.
Don’t get me wrong: I played Dungeons and Dragons, and I loved it. I do lots of things in accordance with geek tribal culture. Heck, I blog, right? Where I grew up I was expected to like rugby and to drink beer. I loathed both. Instead, I found my own things to like. Yes, Tolkien was one of them.
But, to me, a geek is the one person in a group who does not laugh along with a racist joke, because he or she doesn’t care that they don’t fit in. A geek would rather be lonely than compromise him or herself to make friends. So the very concept of geek culture, with its expectation of tribal hivemindedness and conformity, is wrong.
Stop telling geeks what they do and don’t like. Geeks are the sorts of people who can work it out for themselves.
I noticed the other day that a lot of the books I have read in the last few weeks were written on or around 1895. I wondered idly to myself how many books must have been published in 1895, and how many are now completely forgotten, and lost forever. I then wondered how many were published in 1995, and how many of these would also be forgotten and unread, but preserved forever in digital form.
The 1895 books have been through a winnowing process: the best have been reprinted, re-read, republished, filmed, and, in all the cases I am thinking of, recorded for LibriVox. They have had the opportunity to be forgotten, but enough people remembered them to preserve them, and keep them alive.
Modern works, by contrast, if preserved digitally, will be preserved in amber for future generations. Forever. Without going through the winnowing process. Without any democratic process on the part of the public.
At a rough guess, if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I will manage another 2,500. There are so many great books in the world, in different languages, from different ages, that there is literally a work of genius for every week of the rest of my life. Why would I want to waste my time reading something that had not been road-tested?
Think of past generations modding-up a book, so that it survives a century, or more. The more mods, the higher up the list the book climbs. Shouldn’t we start at the top of the list, and work down?
The Library of Alexandra contained many great, now lost works. Of the ninety plays of Sophocles, only eight or so survive. Would the world be any different if we had all ninety? Should not our best guarantee of the superiority of his surviving plays be that they were copied, and stored at other locations, and the others were not? Is it any surprise that so many books from the classical period are works of genius? They are the survivors.
I realise this is all sacrilege. Perhaps I am worried that future generation will have trouble finding our best work, and think that sit coms are the best we had to offer.