Friday, October 28, 2011

They sell books in Supermarkets, don’t they?

A well known Israeli writer is selling his new book exclusively through an Israeli supermarket chain. There, nestled between the carrots and tomatoes, you can pick up his book and add it to your cart of groceries. How is he doing so far? He has already sold over 50,000 copies of his book - which is quite good in such a small country as Israel.  Why did he choose to sell his new book only in this one supermarket chain? He apparently read the writing on the wall. More and more bookstores are closing. Those which are still open have entered into a price war, and as a result - books are marked down by more than 70% and it is impossible for an author to make any real money from his writing. Is his decision then a protest, or is he simply giving in to the inevitable?

We live in an age where e-books are becoming more and more popular, and many people fear that they will replace the hardcover book altogether. Will only online bookstores survive and the library shelves now be filled with e-readers? And if there still is such a thing as the hardcover - will this be nestled somewhere in the supermarket? Attention shoppers. There is a special sale of fresh books in aisle 5. And what about the author? Will he be sitting in the dairy section signing books? Maybe they will leave it up to each author to decide where in the supermarket he wants to set up his table. For some, the pastry and desserts section would serve quite well. Others may prefer coffee and tea. And others may resign themselves to the vegetables. Will your place in the supermarket define you?

Or does it really matter? Surely the idea is the essence, and how it is housed is of secondary importance. Once upon a time, such things were literally written in stone. A rather tedious and slow operation. And then ink was invented and each book was painstakingly written out by hand. And if you wanted a copy of the book, that too had to be written out by hand. And then along came the printing press. There must have been a lot of opposition to that. Mass producing ideas through automation. How could anything good come out of automation? But, like most things, it didn’t take long for us to forget what came before and we soon began romanticizing the notion of the mass produced book. Or maybe the romanticizing only came when the book appeared to be in danger of extinction. Think of it - we are not even left with something we can hold in our hands! How crass. Well, actually you can hold a kindle in your hands, but what about the smell of leather and the rustling of the pages. (When was the last time we actually held a leather book in our hands - or anything with a hardcover?)

And then some people - those real fanatics - ask why we even need books. Why not let ideas  play out through film. Much more visual and so much  more can be included. Imagination? People want to be entertained, without exerting too much effort on their own part. The demands of imagination is maybe why fewer and fewer people read books these days - even before the first e-book or supermarket haven.

It is quite a mess, actually. At times I ask myself why I couldn’t have published my novel twenty years ago when the rules were much clearer. But then, maybe it is better this way. I actually wrote and published an e-book before reading one. Is there any real irony in this? Would I consider selling my book in a supermarket? But then, how could an e-book be sold in a supermarket? Maybe the back of cereal box could be transformed into an ink based e-reader screen. Different brands offering different books. This isn’t such a revolutionary idea. It wasn’t long ago that you got a free video cassette of a movie together with your six pack of beer. I mean - what do we want as a writer? To reach the widest and largest number of readers possible - no? I see some of you shaking your heads.

I have actually begun to write a screenplay for my book. Not so much because I want to quickly reach a wider audience, but rather because I realized that Gwyneth Paltrow will soon be too old to play the main female part (she was quite young when I first started writing the book). But I digress.

One day, probably not in the too distant future, young people will remark - upon hearing about bookstores - “What a quaint idea. A whole store just for selling books. But how could anyone make a living just out of selling books?”

Or by writing them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Man who would be God

The characters worked their way in and out of the darkness. The only thing that seemed to give them life was the solitary light coming from the computer screen. Michael was all alone in the room. The only visitor was his muse. Yet he never knew when, or if, she’d appear again.

He looked again at the words on the screen. When was it that he had become the executioner? His virtual finger hovered over the send button. It would take only one click to become creator. Creating man out of his own likeness. He looked nervously around the room, wondering if he was being watched. How was this any different from the characters in his novel - from the imaginary world he had created for them?

Yet his characters had never tried to enter into his own world. They had attempted, perhaps, to escape the confines of his fiction through creating fiction of their own, having tasted from the tree of knowledge. But they had never sought to replace him.

And here he was, watching helplessly as he gradually lost control over his virtual creation. He had invited Guy to inhabit his world, help him rediscover what he thought he had lost. And instead, Guy revealed a new world that Michael couldn’t have. But it was the same world in which Michael was living. A world in which he and Guy could not both exist. Was Michael to be banished for trying to replace his own creator?

When do fiction and reality no longer exist in separate worlds - and mere mortals have the audacity to believe that they can change the laws of creation?

This is our journey of discovery in - “As I Died Laughing”.

"What are you mad at?"
"Everyone. Everything."
"What's so funny then?"
"The only thing I can do now is laugh."

And so it begins.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Nothingness of Being

Ronald Green, in his book Nothing Matters, makes a distinction between nothing and nothingness. Nothing, he claims, is the absence of everything, whereas nothingness is the absence of something. An important distinction. But how do we distinguish, then, between something and nothingness?

 How much room is there in the human consciousness? For everything added, must something else be erased? How much love are we capable of giving? Can we have multiple relationships without one coming at the expense of another? Can we spread our love evenly between our children, without one receiving more, and the other less? When we learn things, must we forget others? Is consciousness the something and the sub-consciousness the nothingness? Whereas nothing appears to be absolute, nothingness is not. We appear able to slip in and out of nothingness. But what comes first - something or nothingness, the chicken or the egg? Can we only conceive of nothingness after we have conceived of something and recognized its absence?

As an example of slipping in and out of nothingness, I’ll take you back to an earlier blog entry - Why Guinness always tastes better in Tel Aviv. There I told you about how Ronald and I would reach great moments of enlightenment over pints of Guinness at Molly Blooms only to have these amazing revelations quickly evaporate into nothingness on our separate ways home. At the time, I thought they were gone for good, but I was mistaken. They resurfaced somehow in two separate books: Ronald’s Nothing Matters which delves deep into the concept of nothing, offering a clear, comprehensive and in-depth study of non-fiction; and my As I Died Laughing which sets out in a dysfunctional and fragmented exploration into the distinction between something and nothingness, supposedly a work of fiction.

It seems as if we are constantly moving back and forth into nothingness and the something which generated it. In leaving country, language and culture behind, my new Israeli identity has erased many parts of the Canadian identity which preceded it. The longer I have lived here in Israel, the further back into nothingness one would expect the exile of my Canadian self to be. But this hasn’t been the case. Recently I have found parts of my Canadian identity, which I thought were lost, fighting their way back into consciousness. I hear that this is not a phenomenon unique to my own personal expatriate existence. Apparently many people find themselves on a curve in their acclimatization to a new country and culture. They struggle to adapt to their new country, and just when they reach  the pinnacle of feeling almost native to the new language and culture, they enter into a period of recession - their former identity subtly reappearing out of their nothingness. And the main difference is that they no longer feel the need to apologize for, or try to stifle, this something that had apparently never gone away.

Which brings us to the concept of being. What does all this matter if we are going to die? And then everything becomes nothing - earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust - from nothing we came, and into nothing we return. But can we refer the concept of nothing to the concept of being? If nothing is absolute - the absence of everything - then how could anything be created out of it? If our being was nothing before our conception in birth, how could we have ever come about? And if nothing is the absence of everything, how can we enter into the state of nothing after we die. Something surely cannot become a part of nothing. This is probably unexpectedly comforting to many - linking our being to nothingness rather than nothing - believing that by slipping into nothingness, we can slip back into something again. All religions seem to have built their basic premise on this belief, although they all label it differently. For me, personally, I have no room in my vocabulary for an omnipotent being. I have enough of a problem trying to come to terms with my own being. Rather, at this point, it is simply a matter of logic; albeit human logic.

Understanding being, even without taking into account the state of being before our conception and after our death, has puzzled thinkers throughout the ages. A child cannot differentiate between itself and a separate world at first. It goes through a cognitive development where it suddenly becomes aware of objects separate from itself. And then later, it is also able to differentiate between these objects. Is this something that the child is taught, or acquires through experimentation in this new world? Or is it a part of our cognitive programming? And if so, why does it take time for this programming to be activated? Is our cognitive programming the nothingness through which all somethings are recognized? Does this help us understand which comes first - the chicken or the egg?

If something came from nothingness, then the process could hypothetically be reversed. Under special circumstances, we might find ourselves returning to a womb like state. Let us consider the example of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who has been held in captivity for the last five years by the Hamas, and who will apparently be released in a few days. Gilad has had no real human contact in the last five years. He has been confined to a solitary cell where his only reality is the things inside these four walls that he can see, hear, touch and smell. Over time, the construct of this reality must have slowly filled his consciousness, pushing back everything he had known before then into nothingness. And in Gilad’s case, we must ask ourselves if there is a point of no return, where something is pushed so far back into nothingness that it is lost forever. For Gilad has come as close as possible to nothing - the absence of everything - as appears humanly possible. Upon his release, will he capable of recognizing a world he once new? Or will this once again become a learning experience? For Gilad, his being hasn’t changed. But for his family and closest friends, they will search for a being that they recognize,and they may have to come to the realization that he is now a stranger. Must we then divide being into two? Who we know ourselves to be and how others see us? After we die, if we do still exist in nothingness or in something, the recognition of our present being is in our eyes only. Others still recognize our being, even after our death, but they only recognize what they remember of us.

Life is frail. There is no doubt about that. And it is finite - no matter what we do. Yet we never give up on our search for meaning. Maybe we just have to learn that meaning can come out of nothingness, just as much as it can come out of something. Or maybe we need to take one step further and come to the realization that there isn’t any real difference between the two.