Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

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Dreaming of Sleep: Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep

It’s a pleasure to pick up a novel and know from the first lines that it will be worth the read. We usually have to give more of ourselves over to novels than to other forms of writing–a problem in our frantic clickable age. With stuff that I remand to my Instapaper account, I can glance through the first paragraph and decide if I want to keep reading, and if I read three or four paragraphs and am not convinced it’s worth the time, there’s no point in agonizing about whether to keep on going. Same with a book of poetry: If I read the first three or four poems and there’s nothing there other than the authors reputation, I mostly put it aside–though I might admit that it is my failing and not the poets.

But novels are a different horse. A lot of novels require 50 pages and sometime more before we can get fully immersed in the writer’s imaginative world, feeling our way in to the nuances and recesses of possibility, caring enough about the characters or events or language or ideas (and preferably all four) to let the writer land us like netted fish. I think I’ve written before about the experience of reading yet one more chapter, still hoping and believing in the premise or the scenario or the author’s reputation. I’ve finished books that disappointed me, though my persistence was more like a teenaged boy fixed up on a date with with the best girl in school, pretending until the evening clicks to a close that he isn’t really bored to tears, things just haven’t gotten started yet.

But Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep didn’t make me wait. I bought the book on reputation and topic. I loved Bell’s All Souls Rising, but got derailed by the follow-ups in his Haitian trilogy, never quite losing myself in the Caribbean madness that made the first book the deserved winner of an array of awards. Thus disappointed, I hadn’t really picked up Bell’s work since, though I vaguely felt I ought to. From the first sentences of the novel, his first, I was under the spell. The choice of words is purposeful since the book is about a hypnotherapist who, while helping others solve all manner of problems and difficulties through his particular gift at putting them under, cannot neither solve his own problems or put himself to sleep: He suffers from a crippling case of insomnia.

Like any good novel, the meanings are thickly layered. In some respects I found myself thinking of the Apostle Paul’s dictum that wretched man that he was, he knew what he should do, and he wanted to do it, but he could not do the very thing he knew to do, and, indeed, the very thing he did not want to do this was the very thing he did. The tale of all things human, the disjunction between knowledge and will, between thought and desire and act. The main character’s skills as a hypnotist are deeply related to his metaphysical wanderings amidst the mystics and heretics of the past, most particularly Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake because he claimed the church sought to promote good through force rather than through love. Ironically, the main character knows all this, knows in his head that love is the great mystic unity of which the mystics speak, and yet turns away from love in to abstraction, failing to love women because he cannot see them as human beings to whom he might be joined, seeing them instead as mystic abstractions through which he wants to escape the world.

In the end, accepting love means accepting death, which means accepting sleep–something that seems so natural to so many, but if you have suffered from insomnia as I do, you realize that surrendering to sleep is a strange act of grace, one that cannot be willed, but can only be received.

I think in some ways to there’s a lot of reflection in this book on the power of words and stories, their ability to put us under. So, perhaps inevitably, it is a book about writing and reading on some very deep level. Adrian, Doctor Sleep, takes people on a journey in to their unconscious through words, and his patients surrender to him willingly. Indeed, Adrian believes, with most hypnotists, that only those who want to be hypnotized actually can be. This is not so far from the notion of T.S. Eliot’s regarding the willing suspension of disbelief. I do not believe Adrian’s metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but for the space of the novel I believe it utterly. We readers want to be caught. We want to lose ourselves at least for that space and that time, so that reading becomes a little like the gift of sleep, a waking dream.

Under the spell of writing we allow Bell to take us in to another world that is, surprisingly, like our own, one in which we see our own abstractedness, our own anxieties, our own petty crimes and misdemeanors, our own failures to love.

Don Delillo: Point Omega

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m learning to trust my son’s literary taste in the same way I do his musical acumen. That is, at 16 he is far hipper and knowing than I have the energy to even try to be, knowing I would fail. He’s also several years past insistently recommending the latest animal fable from Brian Jacques. (A guilty father’s admission: I don’t think I could have taken many more years of toiling through the literally untranslatable renditions of ferrets speaking in what appears to be a working class Scottish brogue.) This faith in my son’s judgment was rewarded again a couple of weeks ago as we were flying out together to see my parents in Oklahoma City. He finished Point Omega on the leg from Cincinnati to Dallas, and said I really needed to read it before we got home.

That the book is readable on a plane flight into flyover country says nothing about the substance, though I will say that there are times Delillo is getting away with being Delillo. Not least is the fact that he can disguise a novella as a novel with large print and widely spaced lines and still get away with charging novel prices. More importantly, I thought the first third to a half of this very short book required a lot of patience, with the reader saying, “I know this must be good; it’s Don Delillo.” The first third is filled with the exceedingly detached and ruminant monologue of a documentary film maker and his subject, an academician who has lent his talents to the government to justify a war. The book as a whole is on one level a meditation on the mystifications that led us to prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“I’ll tell you this much. War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for th eplotters, the strategists. Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies.”

He chanted the words, he intoned liturgically.

“They become paralyzed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. they think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.”

He was not one of the strategists, he said unnecessarily. I knew what he was, or what he was supposed to be, a defense intellectual, without the usual credentials, and when I used the term it made him tense his jaw with a proud longing for the early weeks and months, before he began to understand that he was occupying an empty seat.

“There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.”

“What reality?”

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resmble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

This is vintage Delillo in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure this dry detachment would have born up for another fifty pages. We get it pretty quickly, the immorality of the abstracted intellectual. What makes the story go, finally, is his having to come face to face with flesh and blood loss, forced in to a recognition that he had become so abstracted from his life that he had only experienced it and those who he should have been caring about as an absence.

Ultimately in novels we care first about relationships and not ideas. Or, rather, we only care about ideas to the degree that they bear the weight of relationships or corrupt relationships or get fleshed out in relationships. And so Raskolnikov, the man of ideas in Crime and Punishment, fascinates not so much because of his ideas but because he makes them flesh and blood and bone. With an axe. What makes Dickens live is not the sociological abstraction of oppressive class circumstance, but the orphaning of Little Nell. Delillo follows in that line in that what makes the novel work is not ultimately the grand ideas of the abstracted intellectual but the ways in which those grand ideas fracture man and wife, father and daughter, man from himself.

That is not in itself profoundly new; if that were as far as Delillo’s book went we’d have to say it was an interesting enough take on the villany of intellectuals. We’ve had that since Faust. But as the book concludes, we recognize that the violence of abstraction is not so much a property of intellectuals as of all living in this twilight of the western world, all those of us who watch the unfolding of images on the screen of our lives, substituting the slow motion replay of dropping bombs and exploding lives for the event, experiencing that violence as an aesthetic object worthy of our repeated fascination, image abstracted from meaning, until the death of others becomes indistinguishable from other means of entertainment in an entertaining world.

Delillo ultimately is a moral visionary. The darkness of his vision is not simply that he sees a world gone bad–though he indeed sees that. Rather it is that one root of that badness lies in the violence we visit on the world through our ways of looking at it. It is in the looking that we can’t escape our own complicity.

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Quotes of the Day–Gary Shteyngart–7/18/10

Shteyngart, who could pass for my friend Tim Dawson

“I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it.”

“American fiction is good. It would be nice if somebody read it.”

From Shteyngart’s recent interview with The New York Times Magazine.  Shteyngart’s new novel is on the way.  I’ve only read Absurdistan, but am looking forward to what’s next.

Del Toro Takes Manhattan

I realize I now no longer have a claim to being a blogger.  Alas cruel fate.  I lost the time, some of the interest, and I didn’t like the sense I started developing that I owed something to my blog.  Just another task to complete.  Still, I just wrote up a quick review over on Good Reads after finishing Del Toro’s new book, The Strain, so I thought I might as well add it here.  Who knows, maybe I’ll find a way to do this again.  I’ve read a bunch of Dostoevsky since my post lo these many months ago.  Some of it is actually worth writing about.

Re. Del Toro’s The Strain.  Ok, I’m a sucker for a decent vampire thriller. I forced myself through the Twilight books as an act of solidarity with my infatuated daughter, so it was good to get back to the dark side with Del Toro’s book. If anything, Del Toro’s book reads a little too much like an immediate slap in the face at the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon. While Meyer’s Vampires are the pictures of life, health, and youth, Del Toro’s vampires are literally a kind of living cancer virus, consuming and transforming the host into undead animalistic killing machines. Clearly Del Toro the filmmaker is lurching back to Nosferatu, where the vampire is more animal than human, and hardly an exemplar of sexual seductiveness. And, indeed, there’s a lot of quotations of cinema–the armies of vampires are a little bit more like the zombies of Dawn of the Dead than the isolated and brooding quasi-intellectuals that have been a dominant strain since Stoker’s original. The bizarre but effective weaponry quotes from both Van Helsing and from Men in Black. The apocalypse that threatens Manhattan quotes from I Am Legend and from…well, almost every other movie that threatens the destruction of Manhattan. Mostly I like going with this and love it though I thought the nail gun that shot silver tipped nails was a little much and the connection to the Holocaust oddly original and overreaching at the same time–the Van Helsing of this book is a holocaust survivor on a hunt for metaphorical antisemites. And I thought a Dracula in Manhattan could have been a little more original than to have a literal coffin filled with soil, but what do I know. Still, I admit it was a good break after being very serious and thoughtful and intellectual as I made my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment last week. I’ll look forward to reading the next

The Solomon Scandals

David Rothman's New Novel

David Rothman's New Novel

David Rothman over at teleread.org has just published his first novel,The Solomon Scandals, so many congratulations to David.  David gave me the chance to read a manuscript version of the novel, so I’m glad to have been some small part of this project. Maybe I’ll get around to writing a review.  Since David gives me an acknowledgment in the book, I can puff myself and David’s work at the same time.