Monday, August 24, 2009

Reading good. iPhone bad.

Hello readers,

Yes, I'm a-writing to all six of you who still check in with us from time to time to let you know we haven't forgotten you. After essentially a summer hiatus, Survival of the Book returns in September with a vengeance. (If we had that voiceover guy, that last line would sound totally cool, right?) Our apologies for the space between posts. With Brian adjusting to domestic life and me jetting around the world, we really haven't been able to keep up with the blog as much as we should. But that stops today, or, well, actually in September. I, at least, will make a concerted effort to post as often as I can so we warrant all of those blog roll inclusions we seem to be on these days.

Today, good friends, I write to you about the survival of reading...my own reading! About a month ago, I purchased an iPhone (I know, I'm a man of the people) thinking that it would really help me in running my business as an agent. I could get my websites, email, texts (you get the picture) from anywhere and I'd never be out of touch. Except, I haven't ever been as out of touch with books as I have been in the last few weeks. This was supposed to be the "Summer of Steinbeck" and, while I have read several of his books, I am really slowing down now with the project and not because I dislike what I have been reading of his. I just haven't been interested in carrying a book with me since I have my trusty iPhone in my pocket. Heck it lets me read the Wall Street Journal for FREE whenever I want! Oh, yes, my dearies, there is a spectre haunting the readers of the United States...

For a while I thought it was just my imagination that I wasn't reading as much as before but then I stumbled on this article in the Los Angeles Times by David Ulin describing my affliction in precise and exact terms. Titled "The Lost Art of Reading" its focus is on "the relentless cacophony that is life in the 21st century can make settling in with a book difficult even for lifelong readers and those who are paid to do it." Yup. That's what was happening to me. I mean, books are my vocation and avocation, so my recent dip in productivity has me running confused. So, too, Mr. Ulin:
Sometime late last year -- I don't remember when, exactly -- I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you do what I do, but it's an even bigger problem if you're the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I've always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends; when my girlfriend and I backpacked through Europe after college graduation, I had to buy a suitcase to accommodate the books I picked up along the way.
I think if you read this blog, you'll probably recognize yourself in that paragraph. I know I do. Heck, one suitcase? Sometime I need two or more. Since I know, exactly, when this dry spell started I figured it would pass as the novelty of the iPhone wears off and I'd go back to the old standby, books. But that hasn't happened yet, I'm afraid. Is this some kind of Apple mind trick to keep me pacified until their version of an ebook reader comes out (not that I would use it. See here for more unfiltered grumping)? Perhaps.
So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.
Preach it, brother. My will is weak, weak, weak. I look at my shiny iPhone and know that on the short bus trip into Harvard Square I can check my email, send Brian a bratty text message, and review the days headlines on the Washington Post all with a few finger, um, touches, I guess. If the bus is crowded there is nowhere to stand such that my book doesn't jab some attractive woman in the arm or some muscled dude in the pecs. The iPhone solves that problem. I think, also, that the iPhone does provide some of Mr. Ulin's wistful "waiting stillness...filing us with thoughts and observations...make them part of ourselves" as I do read serious and literary articles on my iPhone while waiting for the light at Coolidge Avenue to FINALLY turn green. I learn stuff. I am often in awe of some prose pieces I find on various websites but his point is well taken. I still feel unfulfilled. Why?
Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. 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.
I agree. In effect what I have fallen victim to is what much of the nation already thinks but isn't aware of: we have conflated knowledge and information. I have created a monster in my head via this electronic device that somehow reading newspapers, blogs, and websites constitutes the same kind of intellectual activity as reading a book does. I don't know how it happened. Worse, I don't necessarily know what to do about it as technology becomes faster, more portable, and easier to use. I am worried that this confusion could continue as our beloved but obsolete industry continues to work its way to "the wrong side of the grass," as a friend of mine once said. "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," David Ulin writes. I think he has nailed it. The iPhone has allowed me to feel "connected" to what is happening but in reality it has just amplified the "the buzz." I have parsed my time incorrectly thinking that any reading, irrespective of how trivial, is important when really jumping from one website to another while on the T is just an overvaluation of "a series of disconnected riffs and fragments." I worry that I am losing the ability to be contemplative.
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 easy. I shall simply choose to not to be in touch all the time. What I have always loved about books is that they allow me to shrink the huge size of the universe and human experience down into a size where I can see myself as part of a narrative which began with the first humans and extending through past my death until the sun expands in 5 billion years. Specifically, there is already someone who has experienced what I have and reading it in a book makes me feel connected in a way I have a hard time explaining with language. Mr. Ulin uses Saint Augustine's Confessions as an example of what I am writing about here:
There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide.
"[T]he immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide." Perfect. Much more poetic than I am able to pull off but spot on what I mean. The iPhone, even with the ability to look at my beloved while I speak with her, does not accomplish the same thing. Ever. Consquently I am more convinced than ever that there isn't an app for quite everything yet.

So, what is to be done? For me I need to remember that I am a wanderer. We all are. I have always valued discovery via investigation and that only happens when you let go of the idea that you can always be plugged in. Indeed, why would you want to be? Last fall, I attended the Nobel Lectures at Harvard given by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero on "The Work of Doing Nothing: Wandering as Practice and Play." Professor Prothero focused on "wandering as one of the great themes in the world's religious and literary traditions, and as an antidote to contemporary obsessions with efficiency, productivity, and the purpose-driven life. Adam and Eve were wanderers, as were Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Paul, and the Buddha. Ulysses wanders across the pages of the Odyssey and the Pandhavas across the chapters of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. To wander is to move without destination into the unknown, and to open up to surprises." My iPhone--no, technology--took that away from me but now I am reclaiming lost ground.

I will prod myself to remember that books contain multitudes and infinities and when one reads a book, one's self expands even if we aren't aware of what is happening to us. It is telling that I have never had a similar experience with reading that I have had with the iPhone. Namely, I have never said "reading books has really made me feel more out of touch than ever before." Mr. Ulin, meanwhile, is still struggling but also still reading:
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.
Now, where the heck is that copy of Bombs Away?

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