Writing in England in the first half of the 19th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay was a glass-half-full kind of guy. In his History, he wrote:
The history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.
Macaulay believed wholeheartedly in human progress, the idea that, for all our problems, we were collectively spiraling upward toward something better in an inevitable progression that would culminate in utopia.
Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.
Sure, maybe. Then again, Macaulay didn’t have 18th-century movies to provoke morose or desponding views of the 19th. Which is not to say they would have. But watching any film made in the 1980s or 1970s puts me in a mood. The guys all get to wear cozy and classy corduroy jackets that have become entirely impractical today. I know it’s only supposed to be a degree or two hotter on average, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Nowadays, it doesn’t feel safe to break out the corduroy until November. By that point, I might as well wait until next year, because I’ll be wearing a parka over it anyway. We go from summer to winter with no break anymore.
I miss autumn. Remember autumn?
The reminder more painful than the wardrobe is the lifestyle. In your average 1970s movie, the protagonist doesn’t even own a TV. There are rows of paperback books on the shelves, a record player, a typewriter. People seem to spend most of their time talking to friends in their corduroy jackets. With the exception of the corduroy, all of this is true of Star Wars. They even play chess, just like in any other 1970s movie.
I’m writing this now because of two articles that popped up this morning, one mourning the book index, the other, the Advance Reader Copy publishers use to promote books. Or did, anyway. Remember ARCs? I worked as a writer for a company in the Bronx that also indexed books. After work, I’d trawl through the dumpsters in the back and come home with a dozen or more brand-new hardcovers in perfect condition. Filled five BILLY bookcases that way.
This all makes me feel old and cranky.
After years away from the damn thing, I crawled back to Facebook because I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what was going on with anyone I know. Births, jobs, deaths—I’m talking the basics. People don’t have personal websites. Most people my age, even those who work in publishing, have almost zero web presence of any kind outside of social media. And I can’t just email people every year saying, are you still alive? As toxic as the site and company are, dude, I’m at the age when I need to know if people die. Collectively, we’ve decided that having our info on Facebook constitutes 100% of the effort we need to expend in sharing momentous news with friends, family, and colleagues.
Electronic freedom purists, forgive me. If you’re still alive. I have no way of knowing.
You don’t want to be around me after watching The Parallax View or All the President’s Men or Five Easy Pieces. It isn’t about the plot or acting anymore. Just the clothes. The bare little monastic city apartments. The books and vinyl. The intellectual dinner parties. The quiet the rest of the time. When the movie ends, I look around our buzzing, beeping, steamy little world, the glare of screens, the blinking devices, the updates and notifications and downloads-in-progress, and I fall into “a morose and desponding view of the present.”
Sure, technology makes it trivial to send this newsletter to all of you. But if you told me that email was no longer an option, that I had to type this thing up, run off a thousand copies on a mimeograph, and mail each purple, unreadable Maven Game to you in an envelope by hand, I’d throw an album on the record player and get to work with a smile on my face.