Death and Material Culture

Christopher Hitchens passed away on Thursday evening from complications related to the cancer he had been fighting for many months. I received this news with a certain startled sadness, even though it was, of course, expected. I hope to post some reflections on Mr. Hitchens with regards to the quality of public discourse in the coming days. For now, I only want to draw attention to a portion of his brother Peter’s reflections published yesterday in the Daily Mail.

Peter Hitchens wrote of one of his last conversations with his brother in which Christopher hoped to return home from the hospital:

“There, he suggested, we could go through his bookshelves, as there were some books and other possessions he wanted me to have. I couldn’t have cared less about these things, but I had greatly hoped to have that conversation, which would have been a particularly good way of saying farewell.”

Admittedly, as Peter Hitchens notes, the objects are nothing compared to the person. But I would think, personally, that they are not therefore entirely insignificant. They are something. And the books especially, for what they meant to the giver, might be a particularly meaningful token.

All of this to say that no one will ever want to go through an e-reader in quite the same way. Only the particularity of the book as object can carry the fullness of meaning and significance that is entailed in passing a thing on to another in this way. It is an aspect of the culture of the book that takes shape around the older form.

This is, in itself, no argument against the utility of e-readers. It is only to note a subtle loss that attends this particular shift in our material culture. And I, for better or for worse, have a temperamental proclivity to register such losses.

Of course, it takes no particular predisposition to register and regret the loss of Mr. Hitchens.

Resisting Disposable Reality, II: The Pen

Consumerism, together with the technology it drives, generates disposable reality. That was my conclusion in a post a few months back that synthesized some insights drawn from William Cavanaugh and Albert Borgmann. In that same post I suggested that the book was an instance of resistance to disposable reality as it is very often purchased and kept, sometimes for a lifetime. This is one important way in which e-books differ from traditional print books.

Since then I’ve had the lingering idea of documenting similar instances of resistance to disposable reality, and this past Sunday morning one such instance presented itself on CBS’s morning show. A short four and a half minute segment profiled Richard Binder, a former computer programmer who devoted himself to the care and repair of pens. Not the disposable kind, of course, and that is the point. These are mostly fountain pens and have in some instances been handed down from one generation to the next. It may come as a surprise to learn that Binder has a four month back-log of work.

Naturally, it is about more than a pen, it is about what we might call the culture of the pen that includes the care of the pen, the memories it carries, and the practice of writing it supports. To borrow Borgmann’s terminology, these are the focal practices that gather around the commanding presence of the pen as a focal thing (read the original post for a translation). Taken together they suggest a posture toward lived experience that is radically at odds with the culture of disposable reality. And resistance to disposable reality may yet help us calibrate the pace of our lives to a more humane rhythm.

Enjoy the clip below and feel free to send my way any instances of resistance to disposable reality that cross your path.

[Update: Clip has since been taken down.]