to decrease the volume and mass of objects at will — part one

On March 4th, NYTimes.com  published an article by Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel. Here it is. I’ll wait for you here as you follow that link to read it.

For those of you who don’t like to do something else when you’re still in the middle of an original something, this is how the article begins: 

“Can you concentrate on Flaubert when Facebook is only a swipe away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy while Twitter beckons? People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.”

At this juncture in my reading experience I felt a not-exactly-pleasant flutter somewhere deep inside me announce itself sheepishly. As I read on, it just got more obnoxious. Something I couldn’t  put my finger on was making me feel physically sick. Eventually,  it was unmistakable; I was angry. Angry, I think, that it’s a real enough situation to come to the attention of the NYTimes, to be researched, for subjects and sources to be found and interviewed. I knew this was a problem for writers. Most writers these days  need to purchase an application to keep them away from the internet when they’re tearing their hair out… or procrastinating. But readers? Readers too? This is the part that floored me. You ready?

“With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up,” Ms. Faulk, [a voracious reader from Los Angeles, says.]  “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Exhibit B: This morning I drove by two billboards, which stood facing each other. (I swear to you I am not making this up.They were billboards and they were facing each other, directly on opposite sides of the same street.) Here’s an artist’s (my) rendition (sort of) of what they looked like. I did not  make up the text.

Boys and girls, on one hand we have ceaseless, simultaneously exciting and anesthetizing video games, and on the other good, old fashioned reading, achieved by mental exertion of the kind utilized in school. You choose! It suddenly dawned on me: you don’t need to read books to enter new worlds anymore. There are far easier, much more vivid, more instantly gratifying, more immersive, interactive, stimulating ways by which to enter new worlds. In fact, these worlds are 3D and you can decide which rock to peer under and which to throw in the lake and how many ripples it’ll make when you do. So, if reading is nothing more than a hobby, in the same category as video game playing, karate, movie-going, crocheting and TV-watching, then it is the least exciting of all your options. Or, at the very least, it’s the one with the least amount of fun involved. Gone are the days, in short, of enticing your children by dangling “unexplored worlds” and “adventure” in front of them. They chew up and spit out adventure now like it’s Halloween candy.

That a book is not worth spending time on if it isn’t __________ enough to distract us from the innumerable other forms of entertainment “at our fingertips”, is something you can say only if you view reading as a form of entertainment. This is why it made me angry. Because I don’t view reading as solely a way to entertain myself… nor as solely a way to inform myself nor as solely a way to educate myself (remember when there was a difference between information and education?)

The kid standing between the two billboards, each promising the same thing, will always (unless he’s the exception) choose the video game. The “voracious” reader who expects to be entertained on par with the exploits on YouTube or Facebook or even The Paris Review or a story or video on NPR.org, will always x-out of the window , scroll out of the e-book, put the book down in favor of these.

The promises we make about reading literature are no longer serving us, in short. The problem is not with video games or the internet and the myriad fascinating things that are found there; nor is it with so called mindless entertainment (don’t get me started on how much better “mindless” is than some of what’s treated as high art in these parts and others!) The problem is also not the tablet or e-reader or whatever else they’re called. The problem is that we’ve forgotten how to read. We’ve forgotten why we read. And because we have forgotten, we encourage little ones (who eventually become adults, let me add) using all the wrong arguments. Arguments that in and of themselves reveal the wrongest, most empty conceptual foundation. To have a more agile mind, you’re better off studying mathematics, critical thinking, doing puzzles. To “enter new worlds” and “travel anywhere you want instantly”, you’re better off popping in a DVD (watch this, for example, and tell me when the last time was a book made you feel like this does). To “walk in another man’s shoes” you’re way better off playing a role playing game online, where you almost literally get to walk in another (wo)man’s shoes. The virtues of just about every other hobby far outweigh those of book-reading. Except, reading should not and, in truth, cannot, be compared with any other activity. Herein lies the problem.

What is reading, you ask, if not any of that? Good question.

I’d answer it, except my husband, who is in the next room, just emailed me a link to this video on YouTube and I’d far prefer to watch it instead, right after I text him the menu for dinner tonight.

-Aida

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1 Comment

Filed under Bits and Bobs, Excuse me. I have a Question.

One response to “to decrease the volume and mass of objects at will — part one

  1. Julie von Zerneck

    So much food for fodder on your commentary. Thank you so much.

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