I think I’ve only read one Tom Wolfe book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I read it several times, because it’s one of those books that teenagers read several times, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, On the Road and Catcher in the Rye. Those rite-of-passage books that speak to you at a specific time, the books that glamourize outsiders and rule-breakers. At my age right now, I’d like to re-read the book to see what I think of it now. I suspect I would still like it, because it’s an interesting piece of long-read journalism about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Anyway, Tom Wolfe is still around. He’s 86 years old and he’s at the point where he doesn’t really get the whole social media thing, nor does he understand the fundamental changes in the younger generations.
Tom Wolfe — the visionary author of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — says millennials are wasting their time on social media instead of reading.
“So much of what we consume today in communication is really very much like knitting used to be for women,” Wolfe, 86, told the crowd at Doubles on Thursday night at the annual Writing Center at Hunter College dinner. “It’s a time killer.”
Nodding in agreement were Gay Talese, Liz Smith, Enid Nemy, Daphne Merkin, Meg Wolitzer, double helix discoverer James Watson and painter Everett Raymond Kinstler, who has three portraits hanging in the White House. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, said Marshall McLuhan noted in 1968 that the baby boomers were the first generation to be brought up on television. Today’s millennials have far more distractions with YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
“They no longer read. Their minds have changed. They will only believe what the next person says to them in the ear,” Wolfe said. “They are people who are ripe for whispering.”
Wolfe said when he came to New York to write for the Herald Tribune, there were seven daily newspapers: “I wouldn’t write print off yet, but it’s in trouble.” Noting that the average print newspaper reader is 59 years old, and that “everyone else is getting their news on the Internet,” Wolfe said, “When I go out to buy a newspaper, I always go out at night so no one can see me doing it.”
Some guests had noticed that a list of Wolfe’s books on a giant cake made for the occasion erroneously listed “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe. Writing Center director Lewis Frumkes quipped, “We wanted to see who was alert, and who was not.”
Part of this is just the typical old-person “get off my lawn!” stuff with kids-todaying and respect-your-elderisms. I tend to think that if Wolfe was a younger man, he would be embedding himself with the youths to write a great analysis of why they do what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, like he did with his research for Charlotte Simmons. But mostly… yeah, I kind of think he’s right. While I’m not a Millennial, I don’t read newspapers, I read news online. And I barely read books anymore because I’m reading sh-t online all day. And I too have noticed that there’s a fundamental shift in how younger people consume information and what they trust and the conspiracies they believe. One might even say that’s part of the reason why Donald Trump got elected – the way Americans consume news is fundamentally different, and Trump is The Twitter President now.
Photos courtesy of Getty.