Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The consolations of reading, the consolations of friendship (draft) (26 Nov 2010)

I imagine a book would not be blurbed this way anymore. This is on the front cover of the Bantam Windstone edition of Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, which I found in a cardboard box out in front of thrift store in Astoria: "I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly -- this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight." I found that idea appealing in a contrarian way: Here's the anti-page turner, a book that will stop my attention-deficit-driven cultural consumption in its tracks, tame it, discipline it while honing my ability to focus, to luxuriate in well-turned prose, in lapidary lines lazing their way toward nowhere in particular. And the novel hasn't disappointed in that regard; I'm halfway through it and I still don't know or even care what it is about. I just have come to trust that it is shot through with these precise observations of how a peculiar mind might register things -- a mind that, it turns out, is not so unlike my own since I recognize these observations as apt, as true. It gives me an earned but fleeting sense of empathy, and possibly with a character who is supposed to be crazy.

But I can't ignore my eagerness to be done with Housekeeping and be on to the next thing. I fidget with the book, idly riffle the pages, anxiously look ahead for the end of the chapters, try to cram extra pages into smaller spaces of free time, on the commute or during lunch breaks, when most of my fiction reading gets done. Sometimes I even get annoyed with the more eloquent passages: "Fine, I'll read that again; I know I should read that again because I barely gleaned half of it."

Maybe I'm extrapolating too much from my own experience, but I tend to associate my personal impatience in situations like these with a more general, cultural one. I suspect the existence of a free-floating ideological imperative (consume more! consume more!) that manifests in these moments of annoyance at information that comes to me not predigested. Don't they know how much I feel I must keep up with, how much information I "have to" process? Aren't they aware, as I am, acutely, of how much is out there? I sense the book dragging me away from the data stream, and I find myself resisting and resenting it, as if it were taking me away from life and from the world.

Digitization has of course made access to consumable culture a lot easier, and the internet and social media have made us aware of a lot more stuff that would feasibly interest or enrich us. On the surface, this is enormously beneficial. But this makes me aware of the shortness of my time; it works as a perpetual, low-level intimation of mortality, the opposite of Wordsworth's Ode. ("Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?")

In that poem -- very Thanksgiving appropriate, by the way -- Wordsworth rhapsodizes about "that immortal sea" of eternal truth (or something) that for him is available through contemplative reflection. He claims that "the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." It seems to me that instead of being transported to that sea, contemplation of the sort prompted by Robinson's book or that poem itself makes me feel cut off, as if I am dropping down a shaft. I find I don't want to go down into the well of deep aesthetic appreciation like I used to. It's lonely down there. Social-mediatized books (via) may help, but will likely make reading the sort of books that can take you to such a contemplative, slow place beside the point. Why read difficult books when you can read Facebook updates and chat, if what you are looking for is a sense of communion, of what Facebook calls sharing? Who needs the consolations of reading anymore?

This essay by Amanda Smith Regier touches on a related problem, the feeling of isolation that now seems inescapable if one removes oneself from Facebook. After quitting Facebook for a while, she basically concedes defeat in the face of Facebook's having made conducting social life easier -- as if the point of friendship were convenience.
While deleting myself from Facebook sounded like a liberating “eff you” to technology and the constraints of modern social expectations, in fact, it just made it harder to enhance that “real social life” I had idealized.
I don't know. I dutifully try to keep up. I try to "enhance" my social life with Twitter and Facebook, which has turned that social life into another stream of information, data crammed into spare moments rather than moments lost from time, glimpses of disconnected eternity. I'm afraid that Facebook has basically made friendship less like Housekeeping and more like housekeeping. It's obligatory but largely mechanized and demands less of our active attention, though the more we do, the more there seems to be that needs to get done. But we don't expect friendship to disconnect us from the stress and pressures of everyday life. The consolations of friendship suddenly seem superfluous too. We all just stay connected, for what that's worth, scanning the social media horizon for mentions of ourselves, for signs of our life.

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