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.
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.