"They’re coming from every direction. The barbarians, that is." So opens Alessandro Baricco’s book-length essay on "the mutation of culture" that’s happening all around us. His complaint sounds overly familiar at first—the inhabitants of the 21st century are slaves to technology who have no sense of history, they value spectacle over substance and quantity over quality, etc.—but don’t write him off as a reactionary crank just yet. His book’s title, The Barbarians, is actually rather tongue-in-cheek.
Baricco does think that the world we’re entering has been fundamentally altered, subjected to changes “radical and profound,” but he’s not condemning it, just trying to understand: “[P]erhaps those we call barbarians are actually a new species who have gills behind their ears and have decided to live underwater. Obviously to us, with our pathetic little lungs, it all looks, from the outside, like an imminent apocalypse. Where they breathe, we die. And when we see our children gaze longingly at the water, we fear for them and blindly lash out at the only thing we can see—namely, the shadow of a barbarian horde on its way.”
These happy mutants swim in every sea, of course, but Baricco chooses to sound the depths of just a few in his attempt to explain how their new world works. Being Italian, he starts with the topic of wine. It’s consumed in more places by more people than ever before, but the most popular varietals are less sophisticated than they once were. As accessibility increases and complexity of flavor declines, is the total amount of pleasure produced going up or going down? Are things getting better or worse or just … different?
The case of books is similar, and one that Baricco, who’s a highbrow novelist when he’s not penning polemics, can’t neglect:
The idea that the world of books is currently besieged by some of the barbarian hordes is so widespread nowadays that it has almost become a cliché. In its popularized form, this can be said to rest on two pillars: 1) people don’t read anymore; 2) the people who make books these days think only of profits, and make them. Put this way, it’s paradoxical. Because if number 1) were true, then clearly number 2) wouldn’t be the case. So there’s something in need of clarification.
Yes, quality books seem harder and harder to find, but that’s only because they’re camouflaged amid the gargantuan landscape of publishing. More great books are being written than ever, but even more of everything else is, too. Baricco crystalizes a contention I’ve long held, that most mainstream bestseller lists are filled with “books that aren’t books … books that wouldn’t exist if they didn’t start from a point outside the world of books. These are books that have had films based on them, novels written by television personalities, stories set down on paper by people famous for one thing or another.” But he concedes that this is “not at all vulgar.” The so-called barbarians are perfectly entitled to reject a book that relates exclusively to book culture, instead gravitating toward one that’s a “small piece of a much broader mosaic.”
Perhaps the best evidence that Baricco isn’t fighting a rear-guard action, covering our retreat into the past, is that his essay was originally serialized on the website of an Italian newspaper. As installments appeared there, comment and discussion ensued that Baricco incorporated in subsequent chapters. The book wouldn’t exist in the form that it does without the beneficial assistance of water-breathing mutants, a fact that he acknowledges. If The Barbarians doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace our modern age, at least it honestly reflects it. While reading it, I felt at times that I was in the ivory tower and at others that I was one of the slavering hordes outside, which is exactly the kind of sympathetic experience I want from an essayist (and from his translator, Stephen Sartarelli, whom it would be barbaric not to mention).
Inspired by Baricco’s example, I next sampled the work of another backward-looking, forward-thinking Italian writer. Back in the 1960s, Nanni Balestrini composed Tristano, a contemporary take on the legendary love story of Tristan and Isolde. It’s a short novel of ten chapters, each comprising twenty paragraphs. Balestrini’s notion when he wrote it was that the paragraphs within a given chapter could be read in any order, such that there would be limitless paths a reader could take through the story. Nearly fifty years later, his dream has been realized. Every copy of Tristano (translated by Mike Harakis) that’s now being published is unique. Mine begins with some picturesque scene painting: “There are vistas of olive groves vineyards lush valleys and mountain peaks at every turn.” Yours might start differently: “He lit a cigarette and threw the match out of the car window.” Even the covers are distinct, numbered separately as they’re printed. In all, there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible permutations to be read, far more than the number of stars in our galaxy.
Obviously, this is experimental writing that’s not for every taste, but I find the project fascinating. Balestrini conceived something remarkable, and half a century on, print technology made it real in a very old-fashioned way—black ink on white pages. Evanescent binary bits have helped preserve and present an ancient tale in an altogether new way. No two Tristanos are alike, and yet they’re all somehow the same inside. Has it ever been more apparent how much books and human beings have in common?