Pushcart 2014: Tess Taylor, “The Waste Land App” (non-fiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2012

It is a nostalgic poem, so let me start with my own memory of it. Seventeen or so years ago, I came to The Waste Land in the way I then came to most poems—high on caffeine, late at night, crouched on the floor of Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue, coming to books by finding Berkeley jetsam…..
I have a distinct memory of that self and that book, and when, seventeen years later, a publication I quite like asked me to review the new iPad app of The Waste Land, it was this memory I had to contend with.

I love the physical feel of books: the soft velvet finish of the matte cover finish that’s become so popular lately, the wonderful new-ink smell that turns into the persistent old-paper smell over time, toying with furry deckled edges. Reading my old, worn copies of certain books – say, The Bell Jar or Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow to use two very disparate examples – is a remembrance of things past; with the first, I see the dogears and smudges left from 1971, as well as notes and underlines from a paper I wrote in the mid-80s (I kept that paper for more than 20 years, because it included an enthusiastic comment of approval from a professor I admired); with the second, the pages now falling out, I remember Ray Lodato, who showed me through classic science fiction (and my first broken heart, but we won’t go into that now). I don’t replace these books because the experience of reading a new copy wouldn’t be the same.

So I understand what Taylor means when she talks about sitting on the floor of an old used bookstore, discovering Eliot. I’ve sat on the floor of more than one old used bookstore myself (though, in recent years, I’ve decided there’s a reason God made chairs).

I loved reading this essay (available online), what it had to say, the form of it – the software review as poetic commentary. The title alone evokes worlds. I can see why it was included in Pushcart, both because it’s intelligent and delightful reading, and because it’s another poke-in-the-eye at technology (Bill Henderson is no fan of online literature) – but a thoughtful and qualified poke-in-the-eye: Taylor came to “grudgingly” appreciate Eliot-by-app, even though it didn’t live up to her nostalgic memory. But what ever does?

Taylor recounts the almost stereotypical initial slog through technology: “My first impression of receiving the poem was of being on hold…. How often these days one has to call customer support: we have traded in laying down our lives in coffee spoons for calls to iTunes.” What terrific juxtaposition, but also, what a metaphor: getting to the poem takes effort, and can be a frustrating experience, particularly ironic in a medium whose selling point is immediate access.

When she finally gets to the app itself, her description of the experience is equally evocative:

According to interviews about the app, its publishers, Faber and Touch Press, designed it to put the poem front and center. It felt sort-of center: the app opens to a menu of eight kinds of interactive experience, of which just reading the poem is only the first…. But before I could see T. S. Eliot’s poem, I saw, once again, my own face hovering in the screen. I was in my own way, yet again. “Can you turn off the lights?” I called to my husband, who was reading the newspaper beside me. “I cannot see the poem.”

To see your face on the words you read: bug, or feature? Doesn’t turning out the lights to see, echo what poetry does, as it steers away from literal meaning and narrative into metaphor, imagery, allusion? As Taylor’s view of the app becomes more positive, does that not add a layer of meaning of its own? What about her qualification of that positivity – the grudging part of her appreciation, appropriately attached to this work by a poet often considered brilliant, racist, and misogynistic? Is this gimmickry, or participatory, gestalt, immersion poetics?

I love the metafeel of the essay, which Taylor indicates came about by necessity: “I couldn’t figure out a way, exactly, to review it as an object or text except to have recourse to a description of my own ambivalence exploring it.” I’m not sure there’s a better way to “review” anything. In fact, it’s what I do here in this blog all the time, except I avoid using the term “review” because it seems to imply I know what I’m doing, when I clearly don’t. I just describe my reaction to what I read – as Taylor did. Maybe the notions of “review” and “criticism” or “analysis” have become too conflated recently, now that everyone with a computer puts up reviews of everything. It may take an expert to dissect a literary piece, to show how the parts fit together and where they don’t; but the experience of reading is open to all, and one person’s experience is going to differ from another; every experience is valid.

Consider: might those who’ve grown up with tablets and phones and apps and gadgets have sense memories and nostalgias which, though different, are just as powerful? Meeting a compatible mind, finding inspiration, growth, understanding, camaraderie through another’s art, is a profound experience, whether that experience be through words on paper or screen, or through images, sounds, or other sensations.

One of my seriously tattered books is Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (yes, I love Miss Manners, for her humor and the internally consistent system of fairness and equality she tried, and sometimes failed, to incorporate into her books) by Judith Martin, first published in the early 80s. She explains the superiority of letters over greeting cards thus: “Nobody ever… traced a typed ‘I love you’ with a trembling finger.” I suspect many during WWII traced a telegraphed “I love you” over and over; I wonder if, now that more of us are accustomed to screens and printers, if it’s true now. Even I, who treasures my glass pen and buys papers by the piece, have been known to trace a name on a computer monitor… ok, yes, that’s just sick at my age, but the point is: if some kid finds the same absorption and wonder in Eliot on the multimedia, multitasking iPad he’s perfectly comfortable with, I’m not going to tell her it was better in my day.

This essay got me to think about (stop there: is there any better recommendation for an essay, than that it gets you to think about something?) the experience of reading, and all that goes into it. If someone wants to think of reading as one thing and one thing only, that’s fine. But maybe the power of reading is that it can be more than one experience, even for one person. To my father, “papercovers” were dimestore romances; he never accepted that genuine books by real authors appeared in paperback, even after I showed him my copies of Shakespeare, Austin, Orwell. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake, since he also knew that nothing he hadn’t read was worth reading.

The medium is the message, but maybe whatever medium you are accustomed to, like whatever language you grow up learning, is just as valid as the next. Even if there is something special, to me, about matte-finish covers and the new-ink smell.


One response to “Pushcart 2014: Tess Taylor, “The Waste Land App” (non-fiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

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