Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Shelf Life Over Second Life

Not a review, but another idle meditation, the slightly edited version of which appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

One of the prime characteristic of human beings is not that they’re the only animals who blush – or need to – but that all of them yearn to step out of their own skin to inhabit other worlds. Fortunately, there is a piece of technology that enables them to do this. One that lets them take on new identities, explore new places and role-play with other beings. Millions have made use of it already; millions more are doing it right now.

Second Life? Nah. It’s called a book.

Without the benefit of broadband, and in this life itself, you can experience the fate of the Russian nobility during the Napoleonic Wars; inhabit a deserted island where a human footprint alerts you to the presence of others; and venture across Middle-earth to retrieve the Ring of Power. And these, mind you, are just three worlds out of thousands and thousands.

Once between the covers, traveling back and forth in time is simple: you can teleport yourself to a collapsing Galactic Empire or fly to Victorian London to become the sidekick of a pipe-smoking private detective. With such incomparable richness of invention, what else can Second Life be but a poor second?

Ah, but what about one of the key characteristics of this much-touted virtual world – that its content is user-generated? It’s the Resident Avatars who create Second Life’s environment, after all, unlike in a book where the author lays down the line. Well, conducting a simple experiment called re-reading should be enough to convince you that the version of the book you create in your mind is subject to change, depending on your circumstances when reading it. (Besides, as Anne Fadiman says in the introduction to Re-readings: “[T]he reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”)

In his The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt points out that one of the reasons for that genre’s ascendance in the 18th century was the desire of members of newly-literate middle-class to understand their place in the changing world around them. Till today, there’s no better way of doing this than reading, be it a novel or non-fiction that attempts to explain the workings of the quark, the cosmos, or the minds that ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Need a more pragmatic reason? Well here’s the portentous American critic Harold Bloom: "Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness”. We hear you, Harry. You are not alone.

The ability to generate empathy by viewing the world through others’ eyes; the capability to make you understand why the world is as it is today; and the power to create worlds in time and space in which you can lose yourself again and again. Give me shelf life over Second Life any day.


Anonymous said...

A point well made. I forget exactly who wrote it, but there is a quote:

'We read in search of a mind more creative than our own.'

Virtual worlds are interesting platforms - interactive in so many ways - but it is still not a substitute for a well written book.

Would that more people read books, most Second Life text chat wouldn't be such a good demonstration of how low education levels have sunk. :-)

Anonymous said...

Right on!