Thursday, September 29, 2011

Oh, Blessed Autumn

The wind is high, as are the tails and noses of happy dogs. The sky is cloudy, and then blue, and then cloudy. The lake... the northwest wind blowing it out instead of in, has goosebumps. There are sweaters and the smell of woodsmoke. Colorful leaves, those early turncoats let go their moorings and fly to fate.

Fall is here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

'The still point of the turning world'

In the age of distraction, we will need books more than ever

Posted by Johann – June 24, 2011
In the twentieth century, all the nightmare-novels of the future imagined books would be burned. In the twenty-first century, our dystopias imagine a world where books are forgotten. To pluck just one, Gary Steynghart’s novel ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ describes a world where everybody is obsessed with their electronic Apparat – an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn – and have somehow come to believe that the few remaining unread paper books let off a rank smell. The book on the book, it suggests, is closing.

I have been thinking about this because I recently moved flat, which for me meant boxing and heaving several Everests of books, accumulated obsessively since I was a kid. Ask me to throw away a book, and I begin shaking like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and insist that I just couldn’t bear to part company with it, no matter how unlikely it is I will ever read (say) a 1000-page biography of little-known Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. As I stacked my books high, and watched my friends get buried in landslides of novels or avalanches of polemics, it struck me that this scene might be incomprehensible a generation from now. Yes, a few specialists still haul their vinyl collections from house to house, but the rest of us have migrated happily to MP3s, and regard them as slightly odd. Does it matter? What was really lost?

The book – the physical paper book – is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 percent this year alone. It’s being chewed by the e-book. It’s being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It’s hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books. I think we should start there – because it shows why we need the physical book to survive, and hints at what we need to do to make sure it does.

In his gorgeous little book ‘The Lost Art of Reading – Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time’, the critic David Ulin admits to a strange feeling. All his life, he had taken reading as for granted as eating – but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind was wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.”

I think most of us have this sense today, if we are honest. If you read a book with your laptop thrumming at the other side of the room, it can feel like trying to read with a heavy metal band shrieking in front of you. To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words. That’s getting harder to find.

No, don’t misunderstand me. I adore the web, and they will have to wrench my Twitter feed from my cold dead hands. This isn’t going to turn into an antedeluvian rant against the glories of our wired world. But there’s a reason why that word – ‘wired’ – means both ‘connected to the internet’ and ‘high, frantic, unable to concentrate.’

So in the age of the internet, physical paper books are a technology we need more, not less. In the 1950s, the novelist Herman Hesse wrote: “The more the need for entertainment and mainstream education can be met by new inventions, the more the book will recover its dignity and authority. We have not yet quite reached the point where young competitors, such as radio, cinema, etc, have taken over the functions from the book it can’t afford to lose.”

We have now reached that point. And here’s the function that the book – the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says “the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy.” It’s precisely because it is not immediate – because it doesn’t know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen’s apartment – that the book matters.

That’s why we need books, and why I believe they will survive. Because most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration. Those muscles are necessary for deep feeling and deep engagement. Most humans don’t just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book require a sustained concentration it’s hard to get anywhere else. Sure, you can do that with a DVD boxset too – but your relationship to TV will always ultimately be that of a passive spectator. With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut out it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.

I’m not against e-books in principle – I’m tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person’s internal life – can sing.

So how do we preserve the mental space for the book? We are the first generation to ever use the internet, and when I look at how we are reacting to it, I keep thinking of the Inuit communities I met in the Arctic, who were given alcohol and sugar for the first time a generation ago, and guzzled them so rapidly they were now sunk in obesity and alcoholism. Sugar, alcohol and the web are all amazing pleasures and joys – but we need to know how to handle them without letting them addle us.

The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web – and to love it in the limited window I allow myself. I have installed the program ‘Freedom’ on my laptop: it will disconnect you from the web for however long you tell it to. It’s the Ritalin I need for my web-induced ADHD. I make sure I activate it so I can dive into the more permanent world of the printed page for at least two hours a day, or I find myself with a sense of endless online connection that leaves you oddly disconnected from yourself.

T.S. Eliot called books “the still point of the turning world.” He was right. It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.

Johann Hari

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From a site I visit...

Today, on the one year anniversary of my wife’s passing, the rose garden she built and tended in our back yard bloomed with dozens of roses. Oddly, it never bloomed in the spring this year like it usually does, and there were no visible flowers on the bushes when I mowed the lawn yesterday afternoon. I’m not sure how to explain this, but it MMT (Makes Me Think).

Monday, September 19, 2011

For Carmon....

Carmon, I hope you can view this. I hate the title referring to 'tricks'. It takes away from the very truth of the video.

I know you've gone so much further than this with horses, and what I dream for you is that you'll be back with them soon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tomorrow is going to be a different day...

Nothing bad. Possibly good, but....

If you've got extra prayers, candles or chickens to spare, I'd love them sent my way. It's gonna take some work.

(And Hannah... Tofu will be fine.)


Monday, September 5, 2011

The Insanity In Me

I am trying to parse this aspect of my personality that I don't like, that has predictably arisen because of my move.

This is a fine apartment. It's better than the last if you take away the water and the view, something I needed more than I knew. It has more character. It's smaller and better fits a single woman and a dog.

I could be living in a Hostel... a fate that has befallen a neighbor from the old building. I could be homeless... like the people I see in our parks. But, I'm in a sweet apartment, half a block down.

I am uncomfortable here, and I don't have a right to be.


When I leave something, or someone..... I leave. I know people who do that out of strength... what's done is done.... let's move on. I don't think that's my motivation. When I leave, I'm fleeing hurt, harm, sorrow.

When the 'Bittersweet apartment' went south... (the home I felt I'd lived in before) I had trouble even looking at it. I do to this day. Keith lived in a building a half block down, and when I would park to pick him up.... it hurt to look at my old back porch and see in my minds-eye the rest of the apartment.

I have the same trouble with the Howard apartment. Today, Meander pulled me to the wall where I used to take pictures of the 'water people' and I realized I had become one of them.


I was walking Meander last night when we ran into George, Reva's ( oughta-be-husband). He is a good and kind man and in our conversation, he invited me to their building barbeque late this month. He said Reva had really hit it off with the woman who moved into my apartment and (selfishly) all I could think of was the morning I met her... and the same thing happened.

He said other neighbors were participating.... and my mind shut down. I said I'd see what time I worked, and left it at that.

Much as I love Reva and George and could visit them anytime... I can't go sit on a back porch with people who live in the apartment I loved and lost, and other people who are still there. I can't bear to see the water... the way I saw it from my bedroom.

The one building barbeque that ever happened was because Reva and I made it happen and it was amazing, but I can't emotionally go back there.


A friend of mine was raped in her apartment and couldn't emotionally go back into that place.

Her realty company got her another apartment within a week and she moved. And her new apartment looks right over to the one where she was violated.

I thought, this is the most severe instance of your home being taken from you and asked her how she managed seeing the place where it happened, day after day. She answered, "it's what they had and it wasn't THERE". Now, she can't go back and get her things from the storage locker that is there to this day because it frightens her, but she can stand and look at the window where unspeakable things happened to her.


And I can't go to a barbeque.

I'd love to solve this particular insanity in me.