Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why read when you can surf (the Net)?

Reading me here, you may share my decreased attention for reading seriously. I write this on a blog that feeds to Facebook; I post book reviews on Amazon; I must teach half on-line and half "on-site" now and that means I must check in daily with students. So, I read a lot, so much my neck lately hurts from its fixed position with me in a chair, looking ahead as you are at this screen, these characters.

This demand does challenge me when, soon, I will be away from the Net in a rural retreat. My work tells me at least three separate days weekly-- and I teach 48 weeks a year-- I must at a minimum be electronically documented as teaching on their on-line platform. Realistically, if I logged in that much, I'd enjoy much more time to blog, review, and read, for I'd be out of a job.

David L. Ulin, in "Finding your focus" (retitled at this URL tellingly as "The Lost Art of Reading"), in last Sunday's L.A. Times (a sign of the "Times" that the "Arts & Books" section replaced what he edited as the stand-alone LAT Book Review) laments his decreasing attention span. My wife chastises me for my cellphone aversion. I may be the last person not with iPhone or Twitter, but having joined FB six months ago, I do find many writer friends relentlessly promoting their work there. I welcome their posts, but I wonder if in five years -- as with what we may dimly recall as the wonder of getting e-mail our first few weeks on the Internet circa '95-- we'll be as deluged hourly by dozens of come-ons and look-at-me's as we were by spam and are by pop-ups and Flash and embedded video and floating ads. I blame my students: it's their job to come up with such Javas and applets and gizmos.

This makes me cranky, regaling my charges with the good ol' days of me on a manual typewriter banging out term papers. Only the intervention of my fast-fingered wife saved me from converting 500 ms. pages written with a Montblanc 144 into a 500-page dissertation. That last prolonged gasp of fountain pen on paper, transcribed by her onto tiny floppies, word-processing of what I'd compiled by index cards, sighed that last summer as I scribbled up a decade of research. The next year or so, the GUI via the Internet arrived en masse. Nobody'd bother with books, it seemed, ever again.

Ulin tells a familiar set of symptoms. Distracted, can't concentrate, no longer do the stack of bedside books keep us up all hours. "What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age." Work for most of us now involves a screen, more words, lots of pecking and shuffling and skimming, and who wants more for the eye to face with lines of tiny font when one stumbles home? (Inspired by the font change at the L.A. Times website, terrible as it is, I've followed their move to "Georgia" for its serifs without "sans" for readability.) The big or small screens many prefer may dazzle with games and images and spectacle.

"Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time." He muses that books make us immerse our contemplative selves into a removed realm. They slow time down. They make us think quietly. Yes, it reminds me of monasticism, of withdrawal.

He continues after he cites an essayist who quotes Simone Weil:
"One must believe in the reality of time. Otherwise one is just dreaming." That's the point precisely, for without time we lose a sense of narrative, that most essential connection to who we are. We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way.
Ulin's quest reminds him of the similarities between self-knowledge and self-understanding; these are rarely gained, despite evolution, with our heads plugged into an iPod or our thumbs massaging a message on a BlackBerry or iPhone. I love my iPod, of course, but there's a disciplined intimacy gained from the shelter of the imagination less mediated by somebody else's visual or interpretative adaptation of reality. As with a spiritual seeker, we must plumb deeper if we wish to find nourishment more sustaining than fast food or snack packs.

As Ulin concludes, this gift is "what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control. Here we have the paradox, since in giving up control we somehow gain it, by being brought in contact with ourselves." His memory of being scolded as twelve-year-old for carrying a book to his grandmother's family functions reminds me of my backseat companion throughout my childhood, and for any vacation or long stretch that, even now when waiting to pick up my own child in a parking lot or after school, I carry: another bookmarked book in reach. And, I too was punished for reading too much; I had to go out and shovel dog-crap, clean kennel runs, and if that was done, weed. (I got a Weedwhacker for my sixteenth birthday, just in time for late June. My dad thought this funny.) This in a hundred-degree Southern California, semi-arid, usually smoggy summer. No wonder I never grew a green thumb, why I have hay fever, why I sunburn.

Ulin and I would agree with our earlier bookwormish stages:
"Back then, if I'd had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged. All these years later, I find myself in a not-dissimilar position, in which reading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation's attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It's harder than it used to be, but still, I read."
And, I'd add, like meditation, it carries the determination to engage the quotidian by breaking out of the routine, the checking of e-mail, the logging-in to work, the update of our blog or our website or our FB or Twitter status. These all connect, as cyber-2.0 gurus delight in chiding us, but I will look forward to my time away at a campsite with John Muir's "The Mountains of California" and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" as companions with whom I can appreciate the never-seen (except from a car) splendors of Big Sur soon. I'll be away a bit. The campground store, I'm told, will have the necessary wireless hook-up so I can submit my timeclocked teaching by remote, but the real learning for me will be a return to a downtime I have not experienced, in a tent, since I was fourteen, twenty years before that dissertation. Not to mention the Net.

(Adam Simpson's illustration above accompanied Ulin's article. As it captures the meditative analogy well, I couldn't improve on it, hard as the purple detail's able to make out, on the Net. It was easier to appreciate in its original [?] newsprint.)

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