The author's 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in a near-future where one of protagonist Lenny Abramoff's distinguishing traits is that he still reads books. Everyone else, including his notably younger girlfriend, Eunice, pretty much just texts and watches TV.
At last night's reading and Q&A at City of Asylum's tent on the North Side, the very funny and charming New York-based author ("This is my first appearance in a tent since my people left Egypt") talked about how online life and electronic messaging are, as he and others have put it, "rewiring our brains."
It's more than a matter of making rather private information increasingly public -- a trend Shteyngart satirizes with the novel's "apparats," pendants characters wear that give others access to one's "fuckability" and credit rating. (This is one way Lenny ends up on someone's list titled "101 People We Need to Feel Sorry For").
Most generally, of course, our new instant-gratification technology attenuates our attention spans. But Shteyngart spoke particularly of what we lose with the decline of longer literary forms, like the novel. The "sustained immersion" in a character's mind that a novel generates in turn creates an empathy that no other art can match, he says -- even good narrative TV (The Sopranos, etc.) is still a much more passive experience.
Shteyngart said that he himself "didn't know what the Intertubes was until 2006." But now, he says, too long in digital realms and even he loses the capacity to read. When he does need to read, he says, he heads to upstate New York -- out of his cell-phone range. And even then it takes him a week to get back into his accustomed novel-a-day pace.
Also last night, for thematic fun, moderator, Eric Shiner of The Andy Warhol Museum arranged to allow the audience of about 150 to ask Shteyngart questions via Twitter.
Toward evening's end, Shteyngart added that the waning of reading culture hasn't seemed to make shorter literary forms, like short stories and poems, more popular. Nor, he said, has it slowed the flow of students to MFA programs. "The fewer people read, the more people write," he quipped. "That's what's so exciting."
What this all means long-term, Shteyngart didn't assay. Noting that one of his satiric conceits in the book, see-through "onion-skin" jeans for women, is already on the market, he emphasized that his prognosticatory powers are limited: "I'm sort of the prophet of two months from now."