In a recent New York Times article film maker Ramin Bahrani talked about his screen adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s famous dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. The project involved burning a lot of books, something that did not come easily to him. It raised the question, “Do people still care about physical books?” and led him to the conclusion that Bradbury’s work was an important cautionary tale for the social media age.
MercatorNet’s editors have pondered Bahrani’s question too, and come up with their own choice of books. Michael Cook leads off with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic, followed (in separate articles) by Zac Alstin and Carolyn Moynihan.
* * * * *
At the top of my list of reading for the social media age is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), a 1943 novel by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. After The Bible, it is said to be the most translated book in history.
What’s it about? Be patient, because it sounds quite daft.
After a forced landing in the middle of the Sahara without water, the narrator faces death as he tries to get his plane working again. Suddenly a six-year-old boy appears and asks him to draw a sheep. It turns out that the boy is the prince of a distant asteroid and is visiting other celestial bodies and their eccentric inhabitants. He finds earth very perplexing and misses the talking rose on his own asteroid.
What draws people to a book which sounds completely absurd if you relate the plot? Three simple things which ought to appeal to a generation besotted with Facebook and Twitter.
(1) It’s short. Even someone with the attention span of an American president can read it in an hour — 20 minutes if you’re a speed reader.
(2) It has cute pictures. Saint-Exupéry’s primitive but charming drawings are amongst the most memorable book illustrations. In The Age of the Image, Le Petit Prince conveys much of its meaning without words.
(3) It’s about friendship. I don’t recall reading a book which is more therapeutic for social media addicts. After all, what is the problem with obsessively following feeds of people you never see and don’t even know? It’s ignorance of our deep need for cultivating personal relationships. And this is what Le Petit Prince is all about.
The key character is the Fox. He gives the Little Prince tutorials on how to make friends, real friends, not Facebook friends. One needs to speak with a friend, face-to-face, or simply to be silent with him. Presence is all-important:
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready-made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me– like that– in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
But friendship, the Fox stresses, is not self-seeking.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important … Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
This sense of personal responsibility is what is missing in social media contacts and follows and “friends”. Unless you are prepared to make sacrifices for friends, perhaps you don’t have any. You may be as deluded as the bizarre characters on the other asteroids. If you haven’t read The Little Prince, buy or borrow it today. If you have read it, browse through its though-provoking conversations. It’s the perfect tonic for the social media age.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.