I’ve recently become interested in Roger Ebert. As I’ve indicated earlier, he’s long served me as a reference critic, someone I’d consult on movies that interest me. My current interest extends beyond that.
The nature of my current interest is not entirely clear to me. Oh, sure, Ebert is one of the most prominent intellectuals in America these days, and is readily available on the web. As is Stanley Fish. That Stanley Fish is an intellectual is obvious on the face of it. But Roger Ebert, he’s a film critic, no? Yes, and we don’t normally think of film critics as intellectuals. But there are film critics and there are film critics.
And Roger Ebert is more than a film critic. Perhaps he’s always been more than a film critic. But it’s his writing in his blog that interests me, and that’s what’s prompted me to think of him as an intellectual. Yes, I find it just a bit strange. But I’m going with it. He’s not the type of intellectual Stanley Fish is, but an intellectual he is. And, for what it’s worth, he’s more widely known.
And that’s worth something. Just what, I don’t know. But something, and that something is part of my attraction.
You may have heard that Ebert’s been kicking up a fuss about video games. He doesn’t think that they can ever be art. This little tempest in a teapot led him to Tweet and then blog a simple question: “Which of these would you value more? A great video game. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.” The answer came back 13,823 to 8,088 in favor of video games.
And so Ebert posted that result to his blog, while also admitting that there was nothing remotely scientific about his procedure. It’s just an informal question, with an answer that didn’t please him. And he launches into a defense and justification of literature without, however, saying anything more against video games. For the moment, that’s done and gone.
Ebert tells us that he first read Huckleberry Finn when he was seven – I believe I was a bit older than that when my father read it to me. He quotes Hemingway’s line about all modern American literature descending from Huck Finn. [He illustrates his post with scans from a Huck Finn comic.] And he quotes his favorite passage from the book: “Read it over a couple of times and then read it aloud to someone you like. It's music. Can you imagine a more evocative description of a thunderstorm?”
Here’s the nub of his concern:
I believe reading good books is the best way we can civilize ourselves even in the absence of all other opportunities. If a child can read, has access to books and the freedom to read them, that child need not be "disadvantaged" for long. What concerns me is that reading competence and experience has been falling steadily in America. Most of the adults I meet are not very "well read." My parents were.
Beyond a certain point, we take our education into our own hands. We discover what excites us intellectually, and seek it out. The world of books allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.
This is all quite traditional. It could have been written fifty or sixty years ago. No doubt it was, by other intellectuals, in other words.
It’s as though the intellectual ferment that ripped through English departments in the 70s and 80s, ferment in which Stanley Fish was a major rabble rouser, it’s as though that had passed Ebert by. Ebert is writing as a traditional humanist in a world where the academic stewards of humanism have all but abandoned the tradition. The promising new ideas of the 70s and 80s have, indeed, changed the field of discourse. But the way forward is no longer apparent. We’re in a swamp, we have no map, nor compass, and so we don’t know where we’re going.
Yet Ebert defends reading in traditional terms as though Fish’s swamp didn’t exist. What’s particularly interesting is that it’s literature that Ebert is defending, not film. Literature is very important to him, but it’s film that he’s put at the center of his intellectual life. I don’t know what terms he’d use to defend film, though one could certainly say that it allows us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times and other places, who belonged to other races and religions. It allows us to become more humane and open-minded. In exposing us to prose of the highest level, it encourages us to think in a way that isn't merely "better" but is more fanciful, creative, poetic and expressive. It makes us less boring, and less bore-able.
Such words, once again, ignore Fish’s swamp. But they’re apt. Moreover it seems to me that we’re living in a world where film has the kind of importance that novels had in the 19th century. In fact, film may be less important now than it was 30, 50, 80 years ago. And video games, I’m told the video game market is bigger than the film market. Do video games allow us to walk in the shoes of people who lived in other times . . . . ? I don’t know, I don’t play them.
So, in consequence of an argument that video games aren’t and will never be art, Roger Ebert, a film critic, mounts a traditional defense of literature. That’s were we are today. That’s our uncharted sea.