In a recent interview with Wired Magazine, a man named Tim O'Reilly said, "I don't really give a (censored because this is a family newspaper) if literary novels go away. They're an elitist pursuit."
What Tim O'Reilly says matters because Tim O'Reilly is a digital guru, the kind of person who knows what we'll be doing on or with the Internet five, 10 and 50 years from now. After making a fortune in computer-related publishing. O'Reilly now spends time investing in technologies that we don't know we need yet.
O'Reilly believes in something called "the global brain," which I've spent the morning reading about and still don't fully understand except that it sounds simultaneously cool and terrifying. It basically involves being able to access and therefore harness data in order to "solve the world's problems."
O'Reilly perhaps sees the possible disappearance of the literary novel as the natural byproduct of technological progress. A novel is just a story told over an extended number of words, after all. Homer did the same thing, only in poetic lines of dactylic hexameter, something O'Reilly knows, having majored in classics at Harvard. We may be evolving out of the era of sustained reading, replacing it with something more attuned to the 21st century attention span.
I worry, though, that we're mistaking things like information and data for knowledge and wisdom. We don't need the literary novel in any practical sense, but I'm loathe to consider the world that ceases to find value in literary art.
O'Reilly seemingly views the literary novel as something like a commodity, the kind of thing that can be replaced by a new, apparently more novel, form. But when something is replaced, something, possibly something very important, is lost, and we don't appreciate its disappearance until it's too late.
I recently interviewed Sean Brock, the executive chef of two restaurants in my hometown of Charleston, S.C., one of which, Husk, was declared the best new restaurant in America in 2011 by Bon Appetit. Upstairs from one of his restaurants he has what he calls his "lab," where he and his staff experiment with cutting-edge culinary techniques to impart more flavor into his dishes, including creating some unorthodox vinegars distilled from things like Mountain Dew and Jägermeister.
At the same time, Brock is a passionate seed saver, trying to preserve and grow varieties of beans and corn and other grains that have long disappeared from the cuisine because of "advances" in production farming that favor yield and disease resistance over flavor. Brock does this because he wants his food to taste like itself. If you're eating a carrot, it should taste like carrot. Ask him to eat a grocery store tomato, and you'd think you'd offered him a pile of (censored because this is a family newspaper). Is that "elitist"? In Sean Brock's view, each ingredient has a different taste, a different story, and we should seek to preserve those stories so we can create new ones.
Brock wants to preserve the Sea Island Red Pea because it has a different taste than the Sea Island Rice Pea, which has a different from the Red Ripper Pea.
Data is like canned peas. Little flavor, no story, no specific essence. I give a (censored because this is a family newspaper) about literary fiction because we need art as the product of a single consciousness in order to create and preserve wisdom. Can all the data of the world show us more about living as a moral creature than "War and Peace"?
Which offers better lessons on human nature: Tolstoy or Google?
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations:
1. "The Last Policeman" by Ben Winters
2. "A June of Ordinary Murders" by Conor Brady
3. "Another Man's Moccasins" by Craig Johnson
4. "Unfamiliar Fishes" by Sarah Vowell