The modern flâneur

Nandini Nair | Updated on August 27, 2014 Published on June 20, 2014

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Nandini Nair

The spiral form of reading online, rather than a linear one, isn’t less serious, just different. One that acknowledges the architecture of the World Wide Web

I glance at the top of my Google Chrome page and notice that I have 12 tabs open — articles I wish to read, Gmail, which I obsessively check, and Mad Men, season seven, which is buffering, rather too slowly. Facebook and Twitter have been duly scrolled through and logged out of. That is not too bad, I think to myself. My sister has an average of 30 tabs open at a time. A colleague murmured that she had only 50 open simultaneously. That is when Google sighed and killed itself. My parents seldom have more than three open at a time.

These days it is fashionable to lament about the internet generation, to wring hands about their attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorders. To declare that their incessant scrolling, typing, texting is the sure and certain route to imbecility. They have not the patience to read War and Peace, so can never be worthy citizens of our republic.

But you know what — it is high time we kept down our gavel of snobbery and dismounted our literary high horse. I am weary of all those authors, critics and Luddites who vilify the blue glow on our faces and lament the demise of deep reading, while propagating something called — slow reading.

Today’s Web reader is no modern monstrosity, instead he/she is the essential flâneur. A lovely French term for a stroller, walker, idler, usually perceived as a nifty Frenchman, ambling down the streets of Paris. Stopping here, stopping there, doffing his hat to strangers, he spends time rather than money and brims with curiosity about all that he sees and encounters. The German philosopher Oswald Spengler described a flâneur as — “Man as a civilised being, as (an) intellectual nomad... again wholly microcosmic, wholly homeless, as free intellectually as hunter and herdsman were free sensually.”

The most common criticism levied against reading on the internet is its non-linearity. Our eyes scan a webpage in the form of an F. We read the top few lines, we merely glance at the bottom. If words and phrases don’t clasp our attention, we simply move onto another tab, another window, another world. Like a flâneur — quite like the nomad — the internet reader has no pre-determined destination, and is in search of only the next fertile field upon which to graze. We walk not in straight lines, but in spirals of discovery, scanning ever-larger arcs of information, and at times, even knowledge.

Let’s take an example. You start reading a 2012 Rolling Stone article, about Bowe Bergdahl, US’s most famous Prisoner of War, who has captured your newsfeed of late. The fact that Michael Hastings, the 30-something author of the article, died a year after it was published catches your eye. You soon start reading about Hastings’ work, career, and of course, his death. You then find yourself reading about his book, with the curious title I Lost My Love in Baghdad, A Modern War Story, where he writes about the death of his then girlfriend. You read its review in the New York Times and appreciate the critic for mentioning the “whiff of exploitation that hangs over” the book. Like the essential traveller, you are far removed from your point of departure, instead you have landed on completely new and undiscovered turf. If you had read the same article in the Rolling Stone magazine itself, these discoveries would have never mushroomed upon your path.

This spiral form of reading, rather than a linear one, isn’t a less serious form of reading, it is just a different form. One that acknowledges the architecture of the World Wide Web, where information is infinite and discoveries unlimited.

To be a reader on the Net is, like a flâneur, to be both ‘protagonist and audience’. You make your own path, you plot your own journey and then you sit back and enjoy it. However much we might crave the smell of old books — like fresh sawdust and baking bread, or the feel of a glossy magazine — like a woman’s just waxed thigh, paper can never give us the agency that the Net allows and encourages. I like to consider myself a rather avid reader of magazines and books, I have never owned a Kindle and stick to the paper route, but I must acknowledge the fact that while a book harnesses one’s imagination, reading on the Net shoots you into different constellations.

Our traditional flâneur while empathetic to his surroundings, was seen as a parasite of sorts — an observer and never a contributor. Our internet readers, however, are far more active participants. One only needs to glance at the fervour (or vileness) of online comments, the rigour (most often) of Wikipedia and the scope of fan-fiction to realise that while the Web reader might be ambling along most of the time, she also stops to scribble in the wet cement of the Web, leaving her trace for others to read. Scrolling down thousands of pages of fan-fiction left me feeling oddly optimistic. Here were people reinterpreting and recasting our favourite books and movies and comics. Sure, the writing-style careened from the embarrassing to the pleasurable — but this was the 21st century form of the oral tradition. Instead of a single author’s voice fossilised in a single tome, here we had hundreds of voices and retellings. And we are the richer for that.

While readers have moved ahead, our best and brightest authors of literature have not. To be relevant our books today need to absorb, not replicate, the spiral form of reading of the Net. Recently, author-historian-journalist and a flâneur himself, Sam Miller used footnotes as hyperlinks-in-prose in A Strange Kind of Paradise. Extensively researched and in some ways even independent of the text, these footnotes allow the reader to move out of the main text and window-shop for a while. Once satiated with the curiosities in other alcoves, the reader returns to the story at hand.

To read, to wander, without an end in sight — what bigger and better freedom can there ever be? Mad Men has successfully downloaded, I must now return to other tabs on my page, to the millions of worlds at my disposal. And to Don Draper.

Published on June 20, 2014
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