If You Can Read This…

Its been a while since I’ve thought about this, at least in any sort of coherently recordable form, but yesterday I caught this article. Its worth your time to read, and is essentially arguing that technology, specifically the Internet, is actually increasing the number of people who read, at least according to a University of San Diego study. Their logic, it seems, is that words remain the dominant medium by which information is communicated through websites. Thus, the Internet is not only not doing any harm, but is, in fact, doing good toward increasing literacy.

The issue with studies like this one is that they draw broad conclusions from a very focused social observation. The argument certainly can be made that we engage in the written word more frequently than we have in the past if we spend any time at all online (which you obviously do if you’re reading this), even if its only scanning Facebook stories and Twitter updates from our friends. Many of us take the time to digest CNN or NPR or New York Times articles by way of their websites, which are still more text-based than video-based. So, by strictest definition of the term, yes…society is reading more.

My question is, though…how are we reading?

Back in the summer of 2008, The Atlantic ran a story by Nicholas Carr that gained quite a bit of traction: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The thrust of Carr’s argument is that the Internet is changing the way in which our brain functions during the process of reading, that we become more accustomed to reading small chunks of information broken up by tangential hyperlinks and being packaged in easily digestible formats and lengths. Thus, sitting down with, say, Tolstoy, Tolkien, Salinger or Updike, becomes more of a chore than it once was, because the length and intensity of attention required to really engage a work of literature is much more than we are used to.

I’ve experienced this as well. The bulk of the information I consume during the average day comes by way of the Internet. I read news stories in the same “inverted pyramid style” in which they are written; that is, something really has to fascinate me to get me to turn to the second full page.  More frequently than that, I  scan headlines and two-line synopses of stories in my RSS reader instead. When the blogs I follow have lengthy posts, I intentionally have to put them off until later, to make certain I give them the attention that they deserve. Even then, however, engaging a blog post for 5 minutes is significantly different than engaging a novel for two hours. I find myself agreeing with Carr at some level: it is more difficult for me to “curl up with a good book” for more than an hour or two.

The study that Wired mentions is settling for quantity over quality. Taking in more words during the course of the average day isn’t the same as actually spending time with those words, loving the language, acquainting oneself with the author and characters. As reading is taught in our public education system as a means to an end, a technical process to facilitate the hard sciences instead of an appreciation of eloquent language, so has our definition of “reading” become: utilitarian instead of something having value in itself.

Obviously, I’m not against technology. I found the Wired article by way of someone I follow on Twitter, ironically enough. I just feel that its important to not confuse the tools we use for daily communication with the validity of the language(s) we use them to facilitate. In a recent Facebook conversation, a friend referred to Twitter as a “literature sniper.”  Other friends have referred to it as the height of narcissism.  That might be a bit harsh, but it could also be true if the only reason we use our language is for basic communication, at the expense of enjoying and loving and exploring our humanity, of which our language is a part.

Free Standing

Here’s something you wouldn’t believe: When I was young, I was narcissitic.

No, no, its true. To call me self-absorbed wouldn’t have been giving my high-school identity crisis nearly enough credit. I was a musician. I was an actor. I dressed sharp and hung out with the preppy, popular group (if it makes your brain hurt to try to understand how I reconciled those things, don’t worry…it does mine, as well).

Those days are long gone, and at a wise and proven 35 years of age, I’ve seen the error of my ways. For example, the time when I voluntarily “dressed up” has been cast by the wayside. I’ve left more serious symptoms of self-absorption behind, as well. At that age, I was far too focused on being civilized and engaging in “higher,” creative, and academic sorts of things to be bothered with household chores. I helped out only with much groaning and attitude, and never enjoyed it. Growing up in a rural area brought its share of outdoor, agricultural sorts of chores, all of which I loathed. I promised myself and loudly declared to all others that I would not live in this “Farmer Joe” lifestyle in adulthood, because the convenience and fast-paced lifestyle of the city called my name.

To be honest, I have no idea what a farming lifestyle would entail, because that certainly was not what I grew up experiencing. I did keep my promise to be an urbanite in adulthood…civilization for me is defined by how many Starbucks I can drive to in 5 minutes or less. What I have not carried over…or, at least, what I am beginning to lose…is my self-absorption.

This leads me to a sort of active repentance when Karen and I visit my parents. My father now walks with a cane due to a old back injury and other medical issues. I find myself anxious to help him with anything that might require assistance around the house when we visit. Carrying a piece of outdoor furniture? No problem. Take out the trash and bring in the paper? I’m all over it. Things that are even an inconvenience for me in our own home are not when visiting my parents. Each visit brings a new bout of zealous penance.

This Christmas was marked by a nasty little windstorm that did significant damage to the local infrastructure and took the power with it immediately after Christmas dinner. Power wasn’t restored for several hours. This isn’t entirely uncommon in the snowy, rural North East, and so my parents and their neighbors come prepared. It was time to fire up “the generator.”

For the uninitiated, “the generator” is essentially a gasoline powered engine that sits in the gardenhouse, and, when running, sends electricity through a line into the home, which is then used to power critical appliances (yes, I consider a coffee pot critical), lighting, and so on for the duration of a power outage. That’s a bit of a challenge for my father to manage, and I was anxious to stop grumbling about the outage and be a part of the solution. Even therein, however, lay things that my father stubbornly steadfastly pursued on his own, occasionally worsening his health for the weekend, but arguing with me over my offers of assistance. Eventually, I will just back down. I won’t let this turn into a real dispute.

I understand fully my father’s desire to hold onto his independence. I do. I also recognize, however, that none of us are capable of doing everything without requiring assistance with something. Life just isn’t a solo sport. In looking at this (occasionally humorous) dynamic over our Christmas weekend together, however, I’ve also realized that there are times when we need to permit others to help us even when we don’t need it, because they need to help us. I needed to be forced to help as a child, even when my father was more than capable of doing everything himself (he is, after all, Superman…didn’t you know?), because I needed to learn that responsibility. I did learn it in the end, but I wouldn’t be constantly overcoming my feelings of guilt now had I done so then.

Perhaps I will be able to make progress toward shedding some of the rugged independence of our Western culture that can, at times, be damaging to us in the end…especially when I can see that voluntarily doing so will be of assistance to another human being. In seeing what I’ve seen this weekend, I’m certainly going to try to at least strike a balance.

Hopefully without any further power outages in the process.

Here’s hoping your Christmas was blessed.

Photo Attribution: 

Orchestral Variants

Not to get weird on you or anything, but I think there’s another me from an alternate universe floating around out there somewhere.Or maybe he’s floating around in here and just comes to visit me in my head sometimes. Or, maybe that’s way too philosophical. Or, maybe I just need medication.

Its just that he came to visit while I was listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra a couple of days ago. This other Dave exists in a universe that differs from our own, beginning when he made a different choice during his junior year of college. Not a specific, “I turned right and I should have turned left” sort of choice like you see in the movies. This was more of an attitude choice, a choice to listen to others or listen to himself. A choice to focus on specific skills or move with natural talents. The choice was a choice to really pursue his dreams, even though he couldn’t even see the potential of them from where he was, or to listen to those around him who were encouraging him to learn “marketable” skills, to move in the direction that “real life” was taking him instead of trying to change things around in pursuit of some crazy dream all of the time.

From that point on, this alternate Dave’s future…now his present…became much different than mine.

Now, I know that nearly all of us have been rock stars in our dreams. I’ve certainly used my air-guitar to rocket myself to stardom numerous times in front of numerous mirrors, and I’m sure that most of you have, as well. This other Dave (shall we call him “Alternate Dave?”) succeeded. He actually played guitar. He had picked it up after I had stopped focusing on keyboards during my brief experience as a music major. Except he had stayed with the keyboards…and the drums as well…and picked up the guitar later. I admire Alternate Dave’s taste in music…he likes a good rock n’ roll guitar line just as much as I do. He also appreciates classical and jazz just as much as I do…that’s why he plays with TSO, you see. He also writes for them, though. He writes lyrics, and writes stories on their CD jackets. He’s involved in directing the stage production of their performances, as well. He uses all of these random talents that I’ve used only sporadically (and then only seriously in the past 5 years) and uses them together, not to be successful, but just to do what he loves, and let the rest work itself out.

The difference is the guitar. I don’t think you’d want to hear what would happen if I picked up a guitar.

I write this only to say that I’m really jealous of Alternate Dave. I wish I was using all of the things I love and pursuing them for a living. That would just be cool. I wonder if Alternate Dave would consider trading places with me, even if just for a little while? Or better yet, perhaps he can give me pointers on how to re-arrange this particular reality. After all, its never too late, right?

Even better, because things might become strange in my head if I start quoting Alternate Dave, what if you gave me advice?

Go for it. My comment chain awaits.

Photo Atribution: 


I had an amazing idea this weekend. What would happen if, all over the world, simultaneously, everyone of all occupations and faiths and ethnicities, just paused. Just stopped to consider. Just took a moment. What if all of the noise stopped, all the broadcasting ceased, for just, say, five minutes. Quiet. Only people talking to each other, and then only if they chose. More importantly, time for everyone to talk to themselves, to listen to themselves.

Well, logistically, I suppose that’s fraught with complication. Whenever that moment happened to occur, a large percentage of the world would be in the middle of the night and thus asleep, and so it wouldn’t affect them very much. So, we’d have to do this on a sort of rolling deployment, to occur at, say, 10:00 a.m. local time. Ultimately, though, I’m more interested in what would happen as a result.

I had a slow morning Saturday. I love slow Saturday mornings. Scratch that….I adore them. Wake up at 10:00, get around to breakfast by 11:00, not leave the place until 2:00 after several cups of coffee, reading, conversation, and all those around-the-house things you’ve been meaning to do all week. That’s just one of the finer pleasures in life to me. When I finally did get out and about, though, life became sort of hectic again. No matter how much I attempt to avoid a materialistic Christmas, American culture still thrusts it onto me. So, we were gift-shopping. And running essential errands (the grocery store is necessary for that annoying need we have to eat). Sunday had a few more errands, and then balancing all of the things we really want to do in our “free time” (something I suspect will be illegal in the U.S. within five years) while juggling real-life stuff…laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc. All before going to see a friend sing last night. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and, ultimately, Karen and I don’t even have that full of a calendar, relatively speaking.

Late in the afternoon, I was reading, because that’s something I’m determined to make time for. Yesterday was a dark and all around miserable day in Virginia…rainy, grey, and cold. Karen and I were on the sofa in front of the fireplace with our respective books in hand, when the first glimmer of sunlight filtered in through the windows. The glimmer only lasted a few moments, and was gone again. However, it was followed by another a short while later. The second glimmer was even briefer than its predecessor, though. Oh well. I’ll take what I can.

A few pages later, brightness came. I turned to see it…I had line-of-sight through the window at the end of our sun room. The sun looked around the building across the street, and right at me. Bright, burning, momentarily even warm, it filled our entire living room and left spots between my eyes and the page after it was gone. This wasn’t a glimmer, it was a flare, and it was the sort of event that causes you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Soak it in. Listen. Be still.

I know its going to sound odd to say that I “listened” to a moment that was a visual experience (I remember a character from Ghostbusters earnestly ordering, “Listen! Do you smell something?”), but I became quiet and listened for those few seconds yesterday. I didn’t hear myself so much as I heard quiet, a Divine quiet, a pause in the life of a dark and rainy day to experience light. Not a light that went away, but that asserted itself very strongly to remind us that it is still there and at full power on the other side of the grey, and that it will make its return when it decides it wants to. I listened because it commanded attention.

What would our Christmas season, our work-week, our daily routine be like if we had a moment like this each day? Just a moment where we put our schedules aside and chose not to ignore a hue that commands…or even gently requests…our attention?

What would the world become if we all stopped periodically, became quiet, and listened? I doubt it will happen as a worldwide event, but we could launch it as an event for ourselves, and enjoy the results.

I wish you all a quiet week.

Photo Attribution: