During the school year, if someone asks what I am reading, I am likely to respond, "Student papers." But once summer starts, there is time for pleasure reading.
Case in point: The beloved brought into our marriage a set of "classics," which is to say hardcover reprints of authors like Thomas Hardy and Daniel Defoe.
On a recent peruse of that shelf I found Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," which I had never read. Mark Twain wrote "Life" as a travelogue of his journey by steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans and from there up to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Twain took this trip in 1883, a fascinating time for us in the 21st century. Technology was accelerating at a dizzying pace at this time: electricity was transforming life as the Internet has for us today.
The romance with which Twain refers to steamboats feels like my nostalgia for railroads. He laments the bygone days when the paddlewheelers were the queens of the river. And he reserves special venom for... the railroads, which he considers a blight on the land. Here's one choice Twainian snarkism:
We reached St. Paul, at the head of navigation of the Mississippi, and there our voyage of two thousand miles from New Orleans ended. It is about a ten-day trip by steamer. It can probably be done quicker by rail. I judge so because I know that one may go by rail from St. Louis to Hannibal-- a distance of at least a hundred and twenty miles--in seven hours. This is better than walking; unless one is in a hurry.
Twain also spends some time bashing newspapers in a hilarious tour-de-force that's too long to quote in full:
The season being far advanced when we were in New Orleans, the rose and magnolia blossoms were falling; but here in St. Paul it was the snow... The newspaper thinks [this variation in weather] isn't a natural thing; and once a year, in February , it remarks, with ill-concealed exclamation points, that while we, away up here, are fighting snow and ice, folks are having new strawberries and peas down South... An act of Congress-- no, Congress could not prohibit the [yearly] strawberry [story] without questionably stretching its powers. An amendment to the Constitution might fix the thing... Under authority of such an amendment, Congress could then pass an act inflicting imprisonment for life for the first offense, and some sort of lingering death for subsequent ones; and this, no doubt, would give us rest.
Whereas in our day and age, we lament the decline of traditional journalism, and decry the inferior blog-and flog Internet with its lack of civility and rampant gossip.
Which goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and it's a lesson for us in the scribbling business. People will make money off transportation as long as there are people who want to go places.
The same is true about books and news. For a while there, we were thinking that the Internet was going to make all written content free of charge. But in the past year or two, there has been a big rise in paid subscriptions for premium content on websites. Journalism is going to crop up again pretty soon, in a different form. And someday future Samuel Clemenses will lament the passing of that, too.