WERE E. B. WHITE alive and writing today, I wonder if he would use an iPhone at his beloved lake in Maine, sending videos and photos to Facebook and Instagram of his son kicking ferociously at the water. He seemed, like so many of us, to wish to document his life and the lives of those around him, and I wonder just how often — as versatile as White was — he’d find the urge to document somewhere off the page.
White is recently much on my mind. This isn’t only because he’s my favorite essayist; I recently finished a semester teaching White’s essays to a class of college freshmen. The scent of his work is still fresh — I can still easily visualize White standing next to an ailing pig or his Model T, and the prose itself, in essays like “Home-Coming,” “Riposte,” and “Afternoon of an American Boy,” is easily recalled. That man could write a sentence, and whether he is painting an elaborate scene with his words or driving home a candid and poignant idea, he sticks with readers: a notable American voice.
So when I discovered that Eric LeMay, in his book In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments, had included an imitation of White’s own “Once More to the Lake,” I had to see for myself. To my delighted surprise, it wasn’t only that LeMay had mimicked the premise of White’s famous essay, but that his entire book reminded me, in various ways, of how White tackled his subjects.
LeMay not only displays mastery of the short form, but he’s also quick on his feet, knowing both when and when not to jab. And he knows how to lay on the heavy punches as well — the essays in In Praise of Nothing range from subjects like, well, nothing, to the distinctions between comedy and humor, to the history of John and Jane Does, to the AIDS epidemic.
Though I myself don’t watch much television, I’m aware that those who might watch it religiously do so at a level of interaction that grows day by day. Moreover, in an era of nearly ubiquitous “second screen” marketing and media consumption, it’s perhaps become the norm to watch TV with a tablet or phone in hand, going behind the scenes on each commercial break. With readers, I’ve noticed a similar migration — I’ve often seen someone immersed in an ebook on their tablet, going back and forth between what they’re reading and their Twitter feed, effortlessly navigating separate media while staying on task.
This being said, I read In Praise of Nothing having downloaded it onto my iPad. LeMay’s collection is available in print and ebook, but also in a multimedia edition, which includes short videos at the beginnings of many essays, and I was interested in what effect the multimedia presence would have on my reading experience. And what effect might it have, I wanted to know, on the writing? Why might an essayist include multimedia in their work? As with White, I wonder: were Montaigne or Orwell or Woolf or Baldwin writing today, would they use images and video apps to enhance their work?
We’ve seen an emergence over the past few years of the video essay, another innovative form that can prick and provoke in all the right ways, from writers like John Bresland, Claudia Rankine, and Kristen Radtke (and for exemplary larger works we can look to names like Ross McElwee and Errol Morris), but these projects are made of self-contained parts. The videos can (and often do) exist without accompanying text. However, in the case of LeMay’s In Praise of Nothing, the two independent media — text and video — are fused into a singular entity.
When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure that my encounter with these videos was any different from reading on the internet and being sidetracked by a link to YouTube. It isn’t exactly an unpleasant distraction, but it’s a distraction nonetheless. (And I’m reminded here, perhaps tangentially, of the appreciation a writer can easily have for YouTube, as can be seen in the work of Wayne Koestenbaum.) It’s true that with In Praise of Nothing, watching these videos certainly lengthens the reading experience over time — even those two-minute videos add up — but somehow they seep into the book’s entire mode of interaction, perhaps even giving us a little glimpse into LeMay’s mode of thought.
“No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed,” writes Tim Parks in his New York Review of Books essay “Reading: The Struggle.” I’ve spent the last eight years in a metropolis, riding buses and trains and surrounded by those who read on their phones and tablets on their way to work; it isn’t uncommon for a person to take a break from reading to answer a text or phone call, then dive straight back into his book. But if we’ve adapted our mode of consumption to the conditions of our consumption — with not only books made of paper but also books for our laptops, tablets, and phones — then shouldn’t we expect our methods of creation to change as well?
“Perhaps I’m escaping our culture’s overload of images through images,” LeMay writes in his title essay. He continues,
Perhaps I’m already so overloaded with images that I no longer need content, just the pure image, distilled to nothing. Perhaps I’m losing it. I do know I get tetchy if the webcam I’m watching shows more than nothing, or the wrong kind of nothing, or aspires in some artistic way to nothing: a nothing that, in showing nothing, attempts to mean more than nothing — a webcam pointed at a webcam, for example, or an intentionally empty room.
Though he’s meditating here on the idea of being both attracted to and repelled by watching nothing happen on webcams — and nothingness itself — he’s getting at something else when he mentions this overload of images. We do spend quite a bit of time looking at images — on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. — but is this escape, or a meditation in itself? To be able to sit and watch nothing happen on a webcam, and to write an essay about it, doesn’t seem so much like drone activity as it does a willingness to examine just about anything. The essay is and always has been about anything and everything, so why pretend that writing about our current (or transient) obsessions is any exception? What’s new here is the idea that we might use these very obsessions to engage with the form, as LeMay does throughout the book. Other essays and their accompanying videos — which range from musical cartoons and commercials to more educational scenes like an infomercial about menstruation and even a live childbirth — have a quality about them that asks the reader to be both active and passive, participant and witness. Sit and watch the video the beginning of an essay demands, then wonder how, exactly, it’ll tie into the writing, then realize that maybe it doesn’t have to tie in at all. I was curious about the purpose of these videos in LeMay’s essays, but I never found myself annoyed by them. The interactive experience, though defying old reading expectations, turned out to be a pleasant one.
The only thing that might feel uncomfortable about this interaction is that the essay as a form is tied to thought, only interrupted by the writer him or herself via digression; but even though LeMay placed these videos here, each time I change gears to watch one I feel like I’m interrupting, as if to say, I’ll get to your essay in just a moment. First, I have to watch this video. It’s an honestly strange experience, but after sitting with this book I seem to have acclimated. Thanks to LeMay, this is territory I’m not afraid to venture into again — I’m prepared now, I suppose, for a book that will ask me to interrupt my reading.
In LeMay’s essay “Viral-Ize,” he writes,
And what’s that mean?
If nothing else, “-ize” means action. It indicates, for example, that we’re acting in a specific manner, as when we philosophize, womanize, or agonize. In this sense, “-ize” denotes an action in ourselves.
More often, however, “-ize” acts on someone or something else. In grammatical terms, it takes an object. We fertilize an egg, villainize a politician, industrialize a region. Here “-ize” infects whatever it’s aimed at (egg, politician, region) with whatever it’s attached to (fertilizer, villain, industry). In this sense, “-ize” viralizes.
To “-ize” might then also sometimes mean to intrude, or even to interrupt, and “viralize” implies a spreading. In Praise of Nothing does both — it interrupts conventional methods and modes of reading, while also influencing the compulsion to share. Or perhaps that’s just me — maybe I’m the only one who, after watching a video embedded in one of LeMay’s essays, wants to find it on YouTube, post it on Facebook, and wait for the comments to come flooding in.
However distracted we find ourselves, it’s important to learn how to read in this new mode. “Wherever you look,” wrote E. B. White, “you see something that advertises the future.” Perhaps LeMay kept this thought in mind when constructing In Praise of Nothing — forthis is a book, at least in its multimedia version, that gives us a clue about the future of reading. This isn’t to say that one day reading and going to the movies will be one and the same experience, although who knows? I’m not one to predict the future of our consumption, but now I know that reading, on one hand, and watching, on the other, together make for a fruitful experience. And if LeMay’s In Praise of Nothing is itself an “advertisement” of the future, then I have become the gullible consumer.