Finding The Right Words

You know you’re either a) a grumpy old man, or b) a child of the information age, when you find yourself processing thoughts like “how peaceful and pleasant it is to finally sit down with a printed book, turn off all digital distractions and give yourself over to the world of words,” but I actually had one of those moments yesterday. I was wandering around, restlessly, listening to the new Gaga album and thinking about possible blog topics for the next time I was in front of a computer, when I finally decided to go to the of the office where I usually do my schoolwork, just to sit down for a while. Taking this moment to let me mind wander, and not interupted by that eurovisionary beat of the Lady, my eyes fell on a book that had been sitting on the bookshelves in my office for quite some time, but since it was the only one there not related to my thesis, I picked it up. And after reading for a few minutes, in complete silence, slowly but deeply concentrated, it struck me that, yes, there is a special pleasure in uninterrupted reading that I may be about to lose sight of.

Over the last couple of years, a particular brand of magazine pieces and books about the possible perils of the Internet over our collective imaginations and attention spans have demanded much of the oxygen in the public debate, none more so that Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010). I still haven’t read the book, in which, as I understand it from reviews, he argues that the Internet and its hyperconnectivity has shortened our attention spans and made it harder for us to engage with long texts and complicated arguments by doing so-called “deep reading” I haven’t avoided his book because I find his thesis preposterous or anything like that; no, I’ve actually avoided engaging with it beyond his famous 2008 Google article, precisely because I fear he could be onto something. But I feel like that has more to with my individual experience, than something easily extrapolated into a broader theory. Also, I’ve always had an instinctive aversion to this kind of cultural pessimism, and particularly when pessism is coupled with technology. My default argument in those cases tends to be that pessimism about the crippling effects of new technologies is something that has been with us since the very first technological advancements, and every time (books, newspapers, radio, TV, cell phones etc) it has turned out to be fantastically overblown.

For someone as skeptical to Carr’s argument as me, it was something of a personal victory to feel that when I opened this book of literary and philosophical interviews with two of Norway’s finest authors, I felt able to follow their reasoning, even though my brain is now supposedly wired to look for distractions and proverbial hyperlinks, my mind set to drift off after a little while anyway. But then I realized that by being so triumphant about what was not an especially great merit – the task of doing 30-40 pages of middle-brow pleasure-reading without getting distracted by something else – I might have inadvertently confirmed part of Carr’s point. If you’d asked me just six or seven years ago, when I was still spending much more time with books and print newspapers than I spent on the Internett, if I thought I deserved a pat on the back for simply concentrating on the same task for a fixed amount of time, I would have given you a funny look and gone back to my book. And because I did it every day, I wouldn’t have had any reason to sit back on reflect on the particular pleasures of pleasure-reading as uninterrupted alone time.

But not even this story, of me and the book about the famous Norwegian writers discussing nationalism, globalization and the plight of the writer, is a clear-cut counter-example to the argument of the easily distracted modern reader. It’s just that the distraction came from an unexpected source. I was expecting that if I was to be distracted or interrupted, it w0uld be from the thought of an email I needed to send, or to tweet a funny quip from the book, something like that. But when I was unable to finish the book in one sitting, no matter how much delight it had given me, it was because some paragraph or a phrase in the discussion between the writers reminded me of a vaguely remembered, beautiful passage I had read somewhere, and that I immediately felt like I had to track down. But since I didn’t have access to the Internet where I was, I had to do it the old-fashioned way. I was fortunate enough to know what book I was looking for, but this being a Friday evening, I couldn’t go to my local library to look it up, so I hurried to the nearest bookstore, in the hope that they would have the book in stock. They didn’t. The marketplace for books in Norway these days is more or less completely controlled by a two or three chains of bookstores, and a release with highly limited commercial potential, like the one I was searching, is likely to have a shelf life of a year, if you’re lucky.

My frustration grew. I had two options. I could either twist my brain until I remember the quote that was drifting around somewhere in my sub-conscious, with the likely outcome that I would not get any sleep that night, or I simply had to get my hands on that book. Fortunately, the service-minded clerk in the bookstore told me that another store in the same chain had the book in stock, and so I rushed over there to get it.

When your mind has pumped up your expectations for what groundbreaking piece of prose you are finally about to rediscover, you’re bound to be a little disappointed, not least because it will inevitably feel you somehow knew it all along. So, when I turned to page 144 in my newly-bought copy of a collection a essays about things and places that had been passed over by the times (Samtidsruinar, by Marit Eikemo), my first thought was, naturally: That’s it? But then I read the essay in its entirety. It’s about a shopping mall somewhere in Oslo. The writer finds a tree there, in the mall, where kids are encouraged to scribble down wishes. She’s discouraged by the unabashed materialism of most of the entries, from Playstations to TVs, but one note catches her attention. An eleven year old boy wishes for a digital camera, in order to. and I am paraphrasing here, be able to document memorable moments. I share the writer’s sense of melancholy over this. An eleven year old kid should not be concerned with all the memorable moments he might not be able to document because he lacks a camera, because all the time he’d use sharing them with others might rob him of other moments that are even more memorable. Eikemo says: “There are so many things an eleven year old is supposed to forget, doesn’t he know that?” There’s something there. If the moments are memorable enough, do they really need to be documenting for everyone to see? Can’t some of the most memorable moments be memorable precisely because they are so specific to the temperament and individuality of a specific person? It turns out that the paragraph I had been looking for goes something like this, in my clumsy translation: I feel  like ripping the boy’s note off the tree and throw it in the trash. You’re only eleven, I whisper: Can’t you wish for something else?  Forget the memorable! Trust some other time!” (In Norwegian: “Eg får lyst til å rive lappen til guten i ei søppelbøtte. Du er berre 11 år, kviskrar eg: Kan du ikkje ønske deg noko anna? Gløm alt det minneverdige! Stol på ein annan gong!) Nothing earth-shattering, I know, but I still found it strangely moving, and optimistic.

So, yes. Maybe I am actually worse at blocking out the background noise and concentrating on focused reading than I used to be. Maybe it has to do with how the Internet rewires our ability to pay attention. But this time, at least, I was distracted by something from another book, and one that I had to invest time and even money to get my hands on. And it was even ultimately rewarding. Perhaps I should do this book-reading thing more often?

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