INDIANAPOLIS -- In his capacity as the 2010 national winner of the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, Scott Russell Sanders spent the day here recently, making the rounds of media outlets. Over lunch, the professor emeritus of English at Indiana University talked about retirement, the culture of books, real wealth and the common good.
TPH: Which library did you pick to be the beneficiary of the award? [In addition to receiving a $10,000 personal prize, Sanders gets to select a library to receive $2,500.]
SRS: Monroe County Public Library. It’s a great dimension of the award in that it explicitly recognizes the importance of public libraries, the culture of books and what’s involved in nurturing a society where the reading and writing of books is taken seriously. And by books, it doesn’t really matter to me what medium people read in. I distinguish between the nature of the delivery system and what it is that’s being delivered. I will always prefer reading a book to reading something that’s on the screen. But I’m perfectly willing to believe that another person can get as rich an experience from reading the screen -- maybe prefers the screen.
TPH: It’s all reading. Many people go to the library to access the Web.
SRS: Librarians have always understood that libraries are repositories of knowledge. Libraries collect knowledge but also serve as doorways to it. The information revolution increasingly means that the doorways have become electronic.
TPH: The democratic ideal of access for all is now being framed as socialist, but it’s true that it does achieve a social good for a broader community in a public space.
SRS: Free public libraries are one of the great American inventions. We forget that that was an idea that was brought up and popularized in this country and which proliferated around the globe -- the idea that there should be a place in every community where anybody can go in and borrow books to read. They don’t have to be rich, they don’t have to have any kind of standing in society. Just by virtue of living there they have a right to that.
In the public space you have the opportunity to interact with other people to gain knowledge -- including with librarians, who are trained to help you use the technology or find your way to certain kinds of information. I think the funding of public libraries, public schools, parks and museums is vital to the quality of life we all share.
TPH: How does it feel to be retired?
SRS: It’s been a year and it’s been a big adjustment. I knew it would be a big adjustment. I wasn’t quite prepared for all of it. The things I was doing before I retired, with the exception of continuous classroom teaching, I’m still doing -- writing, traveling and public speaking. Also, I still do a lot for the university -- working with graduate students and dissertations, speaking in other people’s classes. Really, the only thing that was taken out of my life by virtue of retiring was semester-long courses with weekly paper grading and office hours for students. While I love teaching and feel very privileged to earn my livelihood as a teacher, and I love Indiana University, it is a relief to not have the week-in, week-out obligation to prepare class, teach class, mark papers. It’s a relief after 38 years to not be doing that. But I miss the longer sustained contact with students that you can only get in a classroom setting. I knew I would miss that. On the other hand, it has freed me to concentrate more on my writing, which I wanted to do, so that my writing time is less broken up. It has also freed me to do more public speaking, which I enjoy doing but which also is driven by a sense of urgency about the matters I tend to be speaking about -- environmental, community and indirectly political, because our capacity to address the issues that face us require a more functional political system than the one we have.
TPH: Public discourse does seem to be at a degraded level. Unfortunately, the media have not helped.
SRS: Electronic media made possible the proliferation of channels by every means -- TV, Internet, handheld digital devices. The proliferation of channels has clearly increased the options, but it’s also made possible the isolation of people in tiny pockets of information and pockets of conversation. It makes it possible for cranks who are thinly scattered otherwise to get together electronically in one place. It also makes it possible for well-informed, thoughtful, searching people who are scattered around the world to get together. It’s a technology that amplifies whatever our tendencies are. If our tendencies are to seek as broad and comprehensive a vision as possible, no tool that humans have made is more powerful than what we have, thanks to electronic media.
If one’s aspiration is to find other people who think exactly like you who you’ll never have a disagreement with, it also amplifies that impulse as well. Unfortunately we’re living in a time when a lot of tendencies seem to be divisive. That’s not universal around the globe.
Look at the European Union. Countries that have been at war for hundreds of years have formed a union with a common currency, a common parliament, a common constitution, where they’re trying to meet much higher environmental standards than the United States and who are not eager to go to war, in fact reluctant to go to war. Who would have predicted that in 1930, or 1945 or 1980? For reasons that I won’t pretend to explain, what we see in America is divisiveness that is not universal on the planet. It’s enabled extreme voices to get a disproportionate amount of influence.
TPH: Reflective dialogue and disagreement has been replaced by the shoutfest. Did you see this in the classroom?
SRS: [Laughing] No, maybe that’s because as I got older I got more intimidating. I started teaching as a 25-year-old and all of my grad students were older than I was -- some undergrads, too. By the time I retired at 63 I was older than everybody and had been for quite some time.
I think the contentiousness is driven primarily by the television medium. We have a couple hundred channels scrambling for the same array of eyes because that’s what you’re selling -- eyeballs to advertisers. The challenge is to grab eyeballs, and you do that with a lot of things, but not thoughtful discussion.
TV watching has actually gone down, though Americans still manage to watch 4.5 hours of television per day, which means somebody’s watching 9 hours to make up for me. I watch science programs, documentaries or news on PBS. I don’t watch commercial TV. It’s a wasteland. I revere Bill Moyers; he’s probably the best living TV journalist in America. There’s no shouting, no special effects, no violence -- just thinking and talking about important matters, and that is not good television. Television more than any other single medium has moved the culture toward the requirement of sensation in order to get your attention. Movies get more violent and more explicitly sexual, there’s more and more shouting instead of discussion and more and more extreme positions. You have to keep raising the level of sensation in order to attract attention and keep people from pushing the channel changer.
TPH: A billboard by Indy Reads, a local adult literacy advocacy group, states that “1 in 5 adults cannot read this billboard.” There are more than 100,000 adults in Marion County who are functionally illiterate. It’s appalling. How can they ever be engaged citizens?
SRS: To read a job application, to write a coherent business letter whether online or on paper, are pretty minimal requirements to function in the business environment we have. If you don’t have that degree of literacy, you’re cut off not only from economic potential -- you're not going to have a job that you find fulfilling -- but also you’re cut off from the whole world of human learning except what you can get through television and maybe surfing the Web.
It has to do with electric media. You know the old saying, “garbage in, garbage out?” When you run a program, if what you’re giving it is bad information, what comes out may look nice and clean but it’s wrong because it’s based on bad information. Similarly this powerful tool, this global network of information dispersion and generation and storage that we have, is the most powerful tool that humans have ever made, beyond the book, for communicating knowledge. But the quality of knowledge we get out is a function of the quality of the questions we put in, so if we ask interesting, probing questions we have a good chance of getting interesting, revelatory responses from that global resource. But if the questions are, When are such and such shows on? or What’s the score of the game? we’ll get answers to those, but they’re not questions that in my mind are worth asking. To simply have a more powerful way of asking trivial questions does not enlarge the human prospect. What enlarges the human prospect is being able to ask significant questions and having these powerful tools at our disposal with which to seek answers.
My central conception of writing has always been that writing itself is not a way of delivering, it’s a way of discovery. When you’re trained to write compositions in school, typically you’re told to go out and get necessary information, find out what the authorities think, assemble it into a nice, neat package and give it to the teacher. So you’re delivering what’s already known before you’ve assembled it. There’s a use for that kind of writing but it’s not very enriching for the writer. What’s more enriching for the writer is to actually discover a pattern or turn up an insight that didn’t exist before. That could be in fiction. I’ve got these characters and I don’t know what they’re going to do. I have to watch them, I have to listen to them, I have to follow them and they may do things that are a complete surprise to me. And that feeling of surprise is one of the rewards of writing fiction. If you know it all beforehand, it’s really dull.
TPH: Does writing fiction hold any attraction?
SRS: Actually, I’m working on a novel now. I haven’t written a novel in 20 years. I’ve written so many works of nonfiction, I think part of the reason I’m taken up with fiction right now is as a refuge from years and years and years of thinking about the state of the planet. I’m still thinking about the state of the planet, as you may have gathered, and the state of our society, but when I’m writing the novel I’m somewhere else. I’m thinking about humans and relationships, which is what most fiction is about -- people falling in and out of love, people dealing with loss and all the archetypal human experiences.
TPH: You’ve done that with your personal essays, so it will be interesting to see how you work it out in fiction.
SRS: Maybe a third of the novel is set in and around Bloomington. The other two-thirds are in Vermont and Cleveland and the upper peninsula of Michigan. But it all comes together in Bloomington.
The next book I’m working on that’s nonfiction is What Is Wealth? The answer that Emerson or Carnegie would have given is very different from what the corporate answer would be. Or look at Wealth magazine. Wealth is money and what’s convertible into money -- stocks, bonds, financial derivatives. That’s a form of wealth but natural wealth never gets counted when we calculate profit and loss. For example we compensate oil companies for the fact that they’re pumping out of the ground something they own and selling it -- the oil depletion allowance. Think about what a bizarre thing that is to do!
Everybody who works is using up his or her days and hours and years. I wrote these 20 books, and every time I write a book that’s one less book I’m going to write, so you gotta pay me to get that back!
But on a P&L sheet of a company they don’t say that the earth has been depleted in the following way and that’s a cost. It’s a cost but it’s not their cost. We only talk about what we garner in financial terms and that’s part of the equation but only part. What else is in the equation? Streets, park land, state forests with trees still standing, breathable air that doesn’t give kids asthma, rivers you can eat the fish out of -- that’s a form of wealth we’ve lost in this state.
TPH: So, you’re asking if is there a way to create wealth that augments life and the processes that make life possible -- air, water, earth.
SRS: We live in a time when the only form of wealth that’s monitored and people worry about and talk about is financial wealth. And that is a form of wealth. I don’t discount financial wealth.
But nobody makes wealth out of a vacuum, they make it in a social context. No matter how good your ideas are or how hard you work or how skillful you are, if you didn’t have an ongoing society around you, you couldn’t create wealth. Wealth is always a social product that’s inflected thru individuals, never a private product.
Also, we don’t talk about natural wealth, cultural wealth or social wealth that’s been degraded and depleted. This includes just goodwill; that human neighbors can get together and do something. That’s precious! But the more that we retreat into our little castles with our little empires and our little personal financial accounts, the less sense we have of having anything in common with our neighbors. I don’t just mean our immediate neighbors, I mean people we share a city with, a state with, a country with. And yet -- and I make this argument in the “Commonwealth” chapter of Conservationist Manifesto -- our well-being depends more on the wealth we share than the wealth we own in private. It depends more on the quality of communities -- public schools and library systems, the availability of museums, parks and drinkable water -- than what your savings account says. There are no voices talking about those other kinds of wealth among television pundits and the chattering political classes.
If everybody makes choices exclusively in terms of their own personal self-interest, what you get is a degraded world. An economy ruled by consumerism requires the path to be through personal purchases rather than communal action. The idea that you can achieve happiness only through private pursuits as opposed to participating in communal endeavors is a very new idea in American history. It dates from the 1980s. I want a country where there are communal efforts to address communal needs, which is what government is for. Imperfect as it is, that’s what government is for.
With all these matters: private versus public and so forth, it’s really a matter of balance. Any society is going to have differences and tensions and struggles within it -- that’s natural. Humans have complex and varied views, but when a society is so unbalanced in one direction, we need contrary voices.
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at .