A mother once asked me what I thought about computer games.
I was at an author event. She was sitting on a large cushion next to her teenage son, who squirmed at the question.
Well, it was obvious: He had been dragged along to this thing. She was worried he didn't read enough. He played computer games, read nothing, and was "missing out" on the wonderful world of books.
I know exactly what I think about computer games: I don't think their impact on our lives is particularly nuanced. When I hear about stagnant productivity in the United Kingdom, I think about computer games. When a student fails to develop good study habits, I think about computer games. When I think about the future of the novel, I think about computer games.
Mostly, though, I think about a short story written over a hundred years ago by Tolstoy called How Much Land Does A Man Need?
The story is one of his late works, a period a modern reader might look askance at-when he decided the purpose of literature was to provide moral instruction, and put on his giant teacher hat.
In the story, a sort of land grab takes place (think Tom Cruise in Far and Away). A man struggles desperately to mark out as much territory as possible, running himself to death in the process. The answer to the question posed by the title of the story, it would seem, is that man only needs enough land to be buried in.
It's not a great story. Stories with moral messages are best left to the anonymous categories of fairy tales and fables. Those written by authors can legitimately provoke the arch response: Who are you kidding?
Even if Tolstoy were morally perfect, in this effort the message is blurry, and the ending feels like a punchline to a joke that went on far too long.
In any case, How Much Land Does A Man Need? could be rewritten in the modern era under a new title: How Much Fun Does A Man Need?