By Sephora Markson Hartz

A response to a public talk with Gary Shteyngart on November 10, 2011. 

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart’s third and most recent novel, is a dystopia of the not-too-distant future, a world governed by the military-industrial complex, overrun with pornography, technology, and consumerism.  The book’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is left with meager comforts: the promise of everlasting life (which, over time, will divest him of personality), love (which is selfish and dysfunctional) and books (which are nearly obsolete). As it turns out, only his books endure.

This is because, Shteyngart explained to an audience at Columbia last Thursday, to the extent that he has a religion, it is books. Describing himself as an agnostic, Shteyngart quipped, “It would be great if a moral force with a nice big beard showed up,” but, in the meantime, connecting with characters in books is the nearest thing to a spiritual experience that he can concede.

Deep engagement with a text requires a kind of tranquility available only beyond city limits, and to achieve this, Shteyngart absconds to his home upstate. Divinity, he explained, comes of existing alone and in silence with the character on the page. Reading a book with such thoughtfulness and attention requires a kind of patience and stillness readily discarded by the digitally obsessed denizens of New York City.

Shteyngart’s self-imposed exile is like Lenny’s.  At the end of the book—and I’d offer a “spoiler alert!” here, but the pleasure of Super Sad is, appropriately, in reading it, not in finding out what happens—Lenny gives up on the possibility of eternal life. He gives up on his city, New York, his home since childhood, which is now a lifestyle mecca for the rich, famous, and powerful. He gives up, it seems, on everything that is meaningful to him except for his books. He retreats to live a quiet life in the Italian countryside, where he writes and, more importantly, where he reads.

If Shteyngart is, as he joked, the “Nostradamus of two months from now,” then his beloved printed page may be in its final throes, soon to be replaced by the glow of a screen. Instead of paperbacks and hard covers, smutty dog-eared pages, and marginalia, there will only be e-readers and ever-more sophisticated mobile communication devices. Which raises the question: Can a religion of books survive fundamental changes to the practice of reading?

Shteyngart’s book gives a bleak prognosis. In it, a synagogue fallen into disuse has been converted into an office where yuppies scramble to start a program of “indefinite life extension.” In place of a Torah, there is a newfangled system of “mood + stress indicators,” which broadcasts how each employee is feeling that day (think of it as computer-generated Facebook status updates). In the transition from page to screen, Holy Writ is supplanted by data, stats, and AIM speak. The medium changes the message, the book concludes. I may be wrong, but “N the bgng” just isn’t as powerful as the original.

Sephora Markson Hartz is assistant editor of Secular Culture & Ideas, a Jewish online magazine.