This week I’ve spent some time thinking and writing about John Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money. Self is not what you’d call a reader. He may be living in the pre-internet days, but he has access to telephones, and directs television commercials for a living. He’s used to thinking in thirty-second bites. However, John Self is also enamored of a woman who won’t talk to him until he reads a book she gives him. “Martina’s present was called Animal Farm and was by George Orwell. Have you read it? Is it my kind of thing?” Perhaps not, since Self runs aground on the first sentence — “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the henhouses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes” — because he doesn’t know what pop-holes are. (Neither did I when I read the book, I might add. But I didn’t try to find out and I didn’t stop reading.)Still, Martina is immensely alluring, so he doesn’t give up. “I positioned the lamp and laid out the cigarettes in a row. I then drank so much coffee that by the time I cracked the book open on my lap I felt like a murderer getting his first squeeze of juice from the electric chair.” Fearful of boredom, Self may have overdone the caffeine; for whatever reason he has trouble keeping on track.
[Orwell’s] book kicked off with the animals holding a meeting and voicing grievances about their lives. Their lives did sound rough — just work, no hanging out, no money — but then what did they expect? I don’t nurse realistic expectations about Martina Twain. I nurse unrealistic ones. It’s amazing, you know, what big-earning berks can get these days. If you’re heterosexual, and you happen to have a couple of bob, you can score with the top chicks. The top prongs are all going gay, or opting for pornographic berk women. At the animals’ meeting, they sing a song. Beasts of England. . . . I went and lay down on the sack. My head was full of interference.
And things don’t get much better for Self from here on. “This body of mine is a constant distraction. Here I am, trying to read, busy reading, yet persistently obliged to put the book aside in order to hit the can, clip my nails, shave, throw up, clean my teeth. . . .” Note that he is “obliged” to perform these acts by his rebellious body. “I started reading again. I went on reading for so long that I became obsessed by how long I had gone on reading. I called Selina.” But he does not call Selina to tell her that he has finished the book. After failing to reach her, he resumes his task, but:
Reading takes a long time, though, don’t you find? It takes such a long time to get from, say, page twenty-one to page thirty. I mean, first you’ve got page twenty-three, then page twenty-five, then page twenty-seven, then page twenty-nine, not to mention the even numbers. Then page thirty. Then you’ve got page thirty-one and page thirty-three — there’s no end to it. Luckily Animal Farm isn’t that long a novel. But novels . . . they’re all long, aren’t they. I mean, they’re all so long. After a while I thought of ringing down and having Felix bring me up some beers. I resisted the temptation, but that took a long time too. Then I rang down and had Felix bring me up some beers. I went on reading.
You know what’s great about John Self? He eventually finished the book. Not that he fully appreciated it: “The only thing that puzzled me was this whole gimmick with the pigs. . . . I mean, how come the pigs were meant to be so smart, so civilized and urbane? Have you ever seen pigs doing their stuff?”However, if he had had a laptop and wireless access he wouldn’t have gotten past page twenty-one. But still.
This is great, and reminds me of the Amis-shaped hole in my reading history.
The vivid description of how the body distracts from a book demonstrates how computers seize the attention in ways books cannot. I'm a longtime reader, and I know what it's like to be immersed in a great story, but no book can reproduce the captivity that a computer induces with its promise that the next turn in a game, or the next feed refresh, or the next link you follow, will reward you with a nugget of satisfaction.
All of us who enjoy books have finished a chapter and suddenly realized, for instance, just how badly we've needed to pee, but the ability of a computer to hold the body in uncomfortable stasis while the mind forages is a power so much greater that it approaches a qualitative difference, rather than one of degree. It's more like fishing, or gambling, in that every unit of unrewarded activity demands to be followed by another.* If there was nothing interesting in your RSS feed five minutes ago, surely there's something new by now…
* I agree when this article says that the "Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction."
Odd that you would write this, because just yesterday I was writing (in my book-in-the-making) about the unexcelled power of intermittent reinforcement.
Now excuse me while I go refresh my Twitter feed.
Here I thought I'd read enough of Amis, and now you're making me thirst for more.
It seems Amis has a recurring interest in the effects that books have on the body. These excerpts from "Money" recall that hillarious scene in "The Information" where the first pages of the hero's novel inflict progressively worse ailments, first a headache, then a cold, then an allergic reaction, and finally blindness.
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