Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Poison Apple, the death of books, and how to live responsibly by being irresponsible

Matt Labash Columnist
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Have a burning sensation? Consult your doctor. Have a burning question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

Matt: I’m a Washington-based political writer under contract to write a book about the 2012 presidential campaign, and I’m under a tight deadline. But a friend invited me fly fishing in southwestern Virginia for a day. I’m tempted to go, and have a ready rationalization: I need to clear my head. But I fear I’m actually just shirking my duty. Oh, and the friend is a Democrat, so it’s not like he’s in mourning or anything; I think he just wants to fish. Should I go? – Escape Artist

First off, congratulations on your book contract. It is a good and noble thing to write books. Particularly books as we’ve traditionally known them since the advent of the printing press, i.e, word-heavy objects with hardcovers and pages that you can put on your fireplace mantle, or that you can adorn your office shelves with to make yourself feel superior to your porn-surfing colleagues, or that you can throw at your vexatious children if a lamp or empty wine bottle is out of reach. You remember books. Those musty, unwieldy things they used to sell at the mall at Borders, before they shut all the Borders down to replace them with Apple Stores, so that instead of seeking out works of literature, you can now get every question you ever had about all the iCrap you don’t need answered by some  18-year-old in Steve Jobsian dorkwear who can’t wait to blow the $3.25-an-hour Apple pays him down at the Manchu Wok in the food court. I’m speaking here of books that were physical objects, that had weight and permanence. Not the e-single, as “books” are quickly coming to be known in our iAge. Which makes saying that you wrote a “book” come with an asterisk, since what you are then actually doing  is writing an overfed digital magazine story (nothing at all wrong with that — I  love long-form journalism and write overfed magazine stories for a living). But that often (not always) has a fraction of the thoughtfulness, craft, or  blood’n’sweat that goes into writing a full-on book, book. Which is kind of like claiming that you did an Iron Man Triathlon when what you actually did was go out for a 6K charity walk to raise awareness for some not-very-impressive disease — like carpal-tunnel syndrome or gout. And which is also an excellent way for timid and cheap publishers to make what once felt permanent ever more disposable, while also spending a lot less money on writers. Which as professional writers, should offend our sense of grandiosity and unrealistic expectations of fat advances, since “books” have always represented an escape from the grubby world of journalism, not further immersion into it. After all, if we wanted to be rewarded in a fashion that is commensurate with what the market is actually willing to pay (i.e., .99 cents for your insta-emission), then we’d have done something more pragmatic and concretely remunerative, like opening an Apple Store franchise at the mall. An attitude which defeats the whole purpose of being a writer. If writers lose the courage of their own child-like entitlement, all that is left in the sandbox are artists, actors, musicians and athletes, nearly all of whom are even more intolerable whiners than we are.

But all the shop talk aside, I’d still suggest you go fishing. Your friend is a Democrat? Who cares? Fish are apolitical. Which is one of the many reasons they’re more desirable company than 95 percent of the people you meet in Washington. (Two more reasons fish trump people: fish can neither talk, nor check their iPhones during lunch.) And not to rain on your deadline parade, but ask yourself what you’d be passing up fishing in order to do. To write a book about the 2012 presidential campaign? We lived through the 2012 presidential campaign, and we could barely stand to read about it as it was happening. How much crueler to expect us to sit through it all again when we already know how the movie ends. I seriously doubt all the fun times you had on the Romney campaign plane or watching Rick Santorum stand next to butter cows in Iowa felt important even in the present. How much less important it will feel now that that present is the past.

No, campaigns and the players who populate them come and go, and are quickly forgotten. But the fish you will catch in southwest Virginia exist outside of time. At least until Apple folds its manufacturing plants in China, and brings them home to some hillbilly haven like southwest Virginia in order to take advantage of cheap American labor (which by then will consist mainly of former writers who can’t make a living off of e-singles), so that their death factories can pump poison into our rivers, thus killing all the fish. In other words, better shirk your duty and fish while the fishing is good. Sometimes the only responsible thing to do is the irresponsible one. And needing to clear your head, while a sign of weakness to some, is not only sensible, but necessary. Don’t be surprised if it makes whatever you write about Santorum and the butter cow even better. As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a non e-single, “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”

Hey, Matt, now that the fiscal cliff has been averted (sort of), what are you going to buy with your middle class tax cut? – Emily Long

You mean what am I not going to buy with my middle-class tax hike? As the payroll-tax holiday expiring now represents thousands of dollars that were formerly mine now riding in the federal government’s pocket. Which is comforting, since I’m sure they’ll be good stewards of it, as they are with the $3.5 billion in debt they rack up each day. It’s the same kind of comfort I derived from my pyromaniac cousin getting a box of Fatwood and a Zippo for Christmas. So the answer is I won’t be buying much. Though if I can scrounge enough change from under the sofa cushions, perhaps I’ll prop up the economy by buying an e-single.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.