Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Miriam Goderich chats about Paris Hilton, Tony Soprano, and Charlotte Bronte

I’ve been preoccupied with weighty issues this week: Paris Hilton’s prison saga and the (genius) ending of The Sopranos.

The fact that I’m spending so much time pondering the fate of one of the most superficial pop culture fabrications in recent times (Paris) and the absurdity and high camp that seem as part of her birthright as free booze at any Hilton bar around the planet makes me feel a little icky. Kinda like when you laugh at a joke that’s offensive to someone but funny nonetheless. On the other hand, I’m happy enough to obsess about the greatness of a groundbreaking television series and the parallels between the last episode’s shocking sign-off and Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant and mostly overlooked Villette (any of you agree?) and not at all embarrassed to discuss it.

What these preoccupations with high and low popular culture say about my intellectual life is also something I’m wrestling with. I find myself ruefully wondering what happened to the avid bookworm who couldn’t wait to turn off the world and embed herself in a book (or series of books), finishing one and immediately starting the next like a chain smoker lights a new cigarette from the butt of the last. I can find some solace in the rationalization that, as agents, we have to keep up with events in our media driven society – you never know when a Hilton (or a Hilton hanger-on) will come calling with a tell-all – but I can’t help but worry that so much time and mental energy spent on tabloid stories and on television – the good as well as the cringe-worthy – is relegating books to a dusty shelf in my library of priorities.

A few years ago there was much debate about whether e-books would mean the demise of traditional books as we know them. Those of us who treasure the experience of holding a fragile, musty tome or a crisp new paperback, feel that reading involves much more than a visual or imaginative process. It is truly a sensual experience that e-books, for all their virtues cannot replicate. Well, e-books have been around for a while now and they haven’t taken the place of our beloved traditional books. Turns out, it’s hard to curl up in bed with an e-book and have the same kind of sensory input.

A bigger threat to books, I think, is the pull on our attention by other media, the fast pace of our lives, the tabloid size reduction of the world into uni-dimensional bites of information that fail to tell the whole story – Paris Hilton would have been a wonderful Wharton heroine, no?, but who has time for a 500-page novel when her whole experience is summarized and trivialized by tmz.com, UsWeekly and Barbara Walters.

In response to Adina’s last blog, I think my summer resolution is to pay less attention to what’s on television and the tabloids and go back to my first love.


  1. I can completely relate. My interests are so vast that I make myself wonder. I think it has to do with a curiosity about life. Something avid readers tend to have. Paris Hilton would make a great Wharton character!

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. Somewhere in the years from childhood to adulthood I lost the voraciousness to which I would devour books on a daily basis. I miss those days when I used to read without end, lost in the imagination I would create when reading a book, every word reading like a picture in my mind.

    I now find myself tuning in constantly to see what Paris is up to, if Nicole Richie is pregnant, or which guy Jessica Simpson is dating and I have to say, I am ashamed. I've lost the thing I loved the most.

    My summer goal will also be to go back to the love of reading quality fiction, and hope to once again find myself lost in the magic of books and not the latest gossip.

  3. Fifteen years ago my husband and I did something shocking: we got rid of our television. We've since acquired one for watching videos, etc., but never bothered to get it hooked up. Every time we go to visit friends or family members with working television sets, we are shocked to find out how much time they spend on television. It really is insidious; you think you're just sitting down for five minutes, but an hour later you're still there. I absolutely recommend this drastic course of action to anyone who feels they devote too much time to watching television. You do! Get rid of it. Sure, you'll feel -- and be -- totally out of touch with the rest of the world, but I can imagine worse things.

    As for books and their superiority to e-books, etc., please consider these factors:
    1) Bookstores (which, with that lovely, respectfully hushed atmosphere could never be replaced by internet cafes)
    2) Libraries (ditto)
    3) The show off factor (you cannot put e-books on your shelf and impress your friends with your collection of obscure Russian novels or the fact that you can read Kafka in German)
    4) The very smell of books (I challenge anyone to try and duplicate that...)

  4. Vilette is a brilliant novel. It's an amazing work and I just don't understand why it's not studied more, other than the usual reasons of gender and period. Jane Eyre, while a good novel, makes Bronte easy to dismiss. Vilette places her firmly in the literary genius category. Thank you for mentioning this book.

  5. I truly love books--and I buy one hardcover at my local indie bookstore five times a week, like a good reader-girl. Reading it is often the highlight of my day. Despite that, I do wish ebooks could replace books and save those trees. For me, the magic is in the words. The sensual part of the experience could be replicated without too much trouble. The trick will be to invent a snuggly, cozy e-reader (perhaps a light, book-shaped one with a fun-fur jacket). I know my opinion is an unpopular one--notice I'm anonymous here, not wanting to attract the hate--but in my heart of hearts trees matter even more to me than physical books.

  6. In a weird way, the ending of the Sopranos was like the ending of "Everybody Loves Raymond." We leave the beloved but dysfunctional Italian family gathered in their favorite room - the dining room - and tiptoe away, letting them write their own endings.

    As far as the Paris Hilton thing goes, you shouldn't feel *too* guilty. I blogged a while back about the phenomenon of giving (virtual) ink to such a vapid person, and the disconnect between what gets covered in the blogosphere and what gets covered in "mainstream" media. I was mostly laying a guilt trip on myself, but it didn't work, because I haven't renounced all my amusements and put on the hair shirt of duty to humanity.

    I think the middle way is best, whether you take your cue from Aristotle, St. Paul, or Buddha. When I find myself sinking beneath the weight of the nightly news, I have to have some mind-numbing outlet. Any news story about Paris Hilton will do the trick.

    As far as reading goes, I always have a few books going at once. When I lay hold of one that really grabs me, I tear through it to the detriment of my household duties and the dismay of my threeping nestlings. Otherwise, I read diversely, a little a day, according to mood and need.

  7. Sorry for the double post. I went and dug up the link to my penitent blog post:

    Writing about what's "hot"

  8. I'm sure she can't wait to get back home, I know I would. I just found this survey where they're asking: "Will Paris Hilton be more popular after prison?". Give your opinion here.

  9. Well...I've read Villette and never seen an episode of the Sopranos. However, I do find my reading time sometime sucked away by design shows. It's primarily because I've got my first house, but still...sometimes, after writing all day, a book isn't the answer. I tend to read in great lumps (usually between writing projects, but sometimes INSTEAD of writing!). A brain can only process so much and if you work in publishing, or write, a book will definitely fall by the wayside at times. I've decided that sitting on the porch is better than TV and I do it without reading if that's what I need most. By the way, I love books for tactile reasons too, but a bath and a book...well, you can't do that with an e-book!