I want to believe that I am not wasting my time watching Vine compilations on YouTube, that the hours I spent scrolling through the Vine app during college were not lost but rather purposeful in some way. Luckily, I have rationalized spending this time because I have discovered–or rather, decided– that Vines are the ultimate medium for creating good readers. I can justify this idea by leaning heavily on Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture titled “Good Readers and Good Writers” and focusing on three principles he outlines for good readers: fastidious reading, impersonal imagination, and summarization avoidance. Nabokov is certainly not the terminal figure in deciding what a good reader is –as no one with a sex crime book can be–but his lecture incorporates itself nicely into this miniature-internet-video-analysis.
I will use the word “reader” as freely as Nabokov does in his lecture/essay. For us, a “reader” is not only someone who looks at words on a page. For us, a “reader” is anyone interacting with a closed system of media with the intent of enjoyment and some kind of artistic appreciation; and the Vine is the ideal closed system for cultivating strong readers.
Perhaps the most advantageous quality of the Vine format is its length. There is a rich history of scholars from Flaubert (whom Nabokov quotes in this lecture), to Cleanth Brooks, to Roland Barthes who claim that there is no reading, only rereading. Vines are only six seconds long and it is easy to find oneself becoming a pedantic re-reader when the subject of one’s focus is limited. And it is this sort of pedantry, one which focuses the on the intricacies of the “text”, one which Nabokov advocates for, that can lead to an enhanced experience with the art form.
In a novel, television show, or movie — art forms which require long or multiple sessions– it is easy to be lost in any number of nuances and complexities; even the most attentive reader or viewer might find themselves racing down a rabbit hole that is only tangentially related instead of fastidiously consuming the main piece. Instead, a single Vine can be consumed multiple times in under a minute. No chance for mishap, only a medium that encourages short bursts of close reading. Take, for example, the “So, no head?” Vine. There is so much to unpack in that short video: the movement, the inflection of the words, the character himself; all of which would be impossible to register with one pass of the video. Rather: this Vine demands and encourages rereading, such as all Vines do.
Additionally, Vines demand imagination, but not only imagination, the “impersonal imagination” which Nabokov advocates for. A two line caption and a six second video provide little context for the reader. So it is the role of the reader to imagine everything that the Vine cannot include. This is the mode in which the aforementioned unpacking must happen. With imagination, the Vine comes alive in interesting ways which excite the reader. Only through imagination, and the unpacking and contextualizing of the piece, can the reader fully engage with the Vine. Other art forms have the space and time to provide necessary information, with the Vine it is all on the reader therefore creating an attentive and imaginative recipient.
But not only that, it is the responsibility of the reader to imagine without identifying with any of the characters. Here Vines also have an advantage over most literary or otherwise artistic forms: their characters, due to the shortness of their medium, are nearly unidentifiable. All subjects of Vines –whether humans, animals, or characters in sketches– are caricatures. Vines are not funny or enjoyable because the character is relatable, they are funny because the characters are grotesque. This is not to say that they are gross, but that, since there is no time to flesh out and define characters, they are all parodies of the human condition: recognizable enough to be funny, but too burlesque to be personal.
The best literary analogue is John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Which, without delving into it too much, is hilarious because of the enormity of all the characters. This is just one example of a long book that has uncontainable characters; every Vine features such characters and thus, impersonal imagination is not only fostered but demanded by Vines.
Finally, Vines escape summary. Imagine, for a moment, trying to describe your favorite Vine to someone who has never seen it. Not only would your summary probably be longer than six seconds, it would also be an inadequate representation of the video. The “Hurricane Tortilla” kid, the “suh dude” boys, the white girl retelling her birth story, the “you’re disrespecting a future army soldier” boy are all entertaining not because they are easily summarizable, but because they cannot be summarized. No artistic medium protects itself from the danger of summary as effectively as Vines do.
I have found it impossible to write about Vines without using words such as “entertaining” and “enjoyable” which leads me to a similar conclusion as the author of our source text. Nabokov, in his lecture, comes to somewhat of a conclusion that being a “good reader” is not as important as enjoying and succumbing to the piece of art. Nabokov states that “the wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.” and, perhaps, this is the lesson to pry away from Vines. Perhaps it is less important to worry if this time spent interacting with Vines is justifiable and accept it as an opportunity for sincere entertainment, an entertainment rooted in a specific epoch riddled with insincerity. Vines are, and presumably will always be, special to millenials; let’s enjoy them with a fervor strong enough to support “a castle of beautiful steel and glass”.
“Good Readers and Good Writers” Vladimir Nabokov, 1948
Jacob Fowler (he/him/his) is an elementary school teacher living in Oakland, CA. He recently graduated from Pitzer College with a BA in World Literature. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Selcouth Station, Ghost City Review, and Riggwelter Press, among others. You can find him on Twitter @jacobafowler.