Fret No More


Time flies when you’re having fun, and it flies at Mach 5 when you’re not. When I hear my kids complain, “I’m bored,” I tell them how much I envy them. Oh, to be bored! To have no immediate demands on my time, energy, and attention! Boredom may appear to be an unpleasant state, but it’s also a harbinger and a breeding ground of things worth doing. It’s the preamble for activities of choice, not obligation.

By mere coincidence I read in succession two pieces on how terrible we humans are at perceiving time and its passage, and how we might alter those perceptions in a more meaningful and satisfying way. They are both entirely convincing, and yet they each offer conflicting ideal states of mind. Or they might not.

First, Alan Jacobs in The Guardian. (I have never met this man, but I swear I count him among the most valuable teachers of my life.) Jacobs refers to our culture, as driven by our various media, as “presentist.” He writes, “The social media ecosystem is designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now.” There’s no way to think deeply or consider alternate or broader perspectives because the fire hose of stimuli never ceases.

The only solution is to cultivate “temporal bandwidth,” which Jacobs defines as “an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future.” Less “now” and more “back then, now, and later.” And the way we do that is to read books. Old books, preferably. “To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing.”

That education sets the stage for one’s mind to not only absorb the wisdom and the mistakes of the past, but to contemplate how they “reverberate into the future”:

You see that some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance. The “tenuous” self, sensitive only to the needs of This Instant, always believes — often incorrectly — that the present is infinitely consequential.

But cultivating temporal bandwidth is happening less and less, it seems. And as Jacobs says in a separate post, “Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter.”

But while Jacobs recommends steering us away from believing the present to be of prime significance, David Cain at Raptitude urges us to grasp the present more tightly, and let concerns about the past and future fade to periphery.

And it is all to address the same basic problem: we feel washed away by the force and flow of time. Comparing an adult’s perceptions of time to a child’s, Cain writes:

As we become adults, we tend to take on more time commitments. We need to work, maintain a household, and fulfill obligations to others. […] Because these commitments are so important to manage, adult life is characterized by thoughts and worries about time. For us, time always feels limited and scarce, whereas for children, who are busy experiencing life, it’s mostly an abstract thing grownups are always fretting about. There’s nothing we grownups think about more than time — how things are going to go, could go, or did go.

Cain doesn’t point to social media or cultural illiteracy as culprits, but rather our disproportionate fixation on the past and the future. It may be that Cain is largely discussing a different scale of time than is Jacobs. Cain seems to be referring to our fixation on what has happened in the relatively recent past (10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, for example) and what the immediate future bodes (say, the next couple of hours or the next couple of months). Jacobs, by emphasizing the reading of “old books” (and by quoting lines from Horace) is certainly thinking of a much deeper past and a more distant future, spans that transcend our own lifetimes.

But as I said, Cain recommends regarding the past and future less, and home in on the present. “The more life is weighted towards attending to present moment experience, the more abundant time seems,” he says. And the way to attend to that present moment, as clichéd as it might sound these days, is through mindfulness, which can mean meditation or any activities “that you can’t do absent-mindedly: arts and crafts, sports, gardening, dancing.” Here’s why:

It’s only when we’re fretting about the future or reminiscing over the past that life seems too short, too fast, too out of control. When your attention is invested in present-moment experience, there is always exactly enough time. Every experience fits perfectly into its moment.

Note that Cain never mentions reading as one of those activities that one can’t do absent-mindedly. I don’t know about you, but if I read absent-mindedly I’m probably not actually reading at all, or at least not in such a way that I’ll retain anything. So whether or not he intended it or agrees with it, I’m throwing “reading books” into that list.

This is the bridge that connects these seemingly-conflicting viewpoints, making them complementary. Much of this rests on the difference in time scale I referred to, which, if taken into account, begins to form a complete picture. Few would argue with the idea that fretting about the immediate past and future is detrimental to one’s experience of time, or that contemplation and consideration of history and the long-term repercussions of our actions is a waste of time.

They key word here might indeed be “fretting.” In this sense, the definition of “fretting” isn’t limited to “worrying,” but describes a broader practice of wasting energy and attention on things within a narrow temporal scope without taking any meaningful action to address whatever concerns might be contained within. We fret about choices we’ve made and what such-and-such a person is thinking about us or how we’ll ever manage to get through the day, week, or year with our sanity intact. We rarely fret about how the Khwarazmian Empire was woefully unprepared for the Mongol army under Genghis Khan in 1219, or how the human inhabitants of TRAPPIST-1d will successfully harvest the planet’s resources to support a growing populace.

And of course, nothing engenders fretting like social media. Already primed for fretting by the demands of work, family, and self-doubt, now we can fret in real time (and repeatedly) over anything relatives, acquaintances, total strangers, politicians, celebrities, and algorithms flash before our awareness. It is possible to exist in a state of permanent fret.

Let me tell you, time really freaking zooms when you’re fretting.

So let’s combine the recommendations of Jacobs and Cain to address our temporal-perception crisis. Let’s get off of Facebook and Twitter, let’s turn off the television, and let’s get to that stack of books (or list of ebooks if you prefer) and read. Let’s allow our brains to expand our awareness, considerations, and moral circle beyond this moment, this year, this era. Let’s not burden ourselves with the exhausting worries about what we’re reading or how long it will take to read it or what else we should be reading but aren’t. Let’s make time to chat with our kids and our parents, and write, tinker, draw, arrange, organize, build, repair, or tend as best suits us. Let’s stop and breathe and think of nothing for a few minutes as we focus on the present instant in time and space, even to the atomic level. And then let’s think big, daring, universe-spanning thoughts beyond all measure.

Let’s be bored, and let that boredom nudge, inspire, or shock us into activity, be it infinitesimal or polycosmic.

It will take practice. It will not be easy. Let’s accept that this, too, is a journey of time and effort and moments.

And let us fret no more.


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Books: Too Sexy for Words

I love physical books. I also love my Kindle Paperwhite and I also love my iPad. All of them are wonderful objects, and oh yes, they allow me to read. The reading, you see, is the important part.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from the testimonials of some who dismiss ebooks and swear only by physical codices. In her essay in The Guardian, Paula Cocozza gives a slight nod to the pleasures of reading on paper versus screens, which I do not disagree with, but much of the column is a celebration of the physical book, not for its contents, but for its physical properties and how they can be creatively embellished upon:

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art … Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.

Do they? And if they do, well, so what? People want sexy-looking everything!

This obviously doesn’t speak to the superiority of books over ebooks as means to reading. It’s a display of fetishism for a product, the reduction of the book from medium to fashion item. If overly expensive smartphones are gaudy status symbols, then what do you call artsy displays of shelved volumes that are never actually opened?

I’ve actually come to appreciate physical books more than ever lately as I have tried very hard to steer my attention away from the constant stress and panic of social media. Kindles are actually great for that all on their own, since they can’t do much of anything other than display, notate, research, or purchase book content. (Oh, and they’re self-illuminating, which is a huge leg up on mere paper.) But there is that one additional step of removal from the online swarm that one can achieve with a physical book that is often deeply refreshing, and I am finding at times necessary. I am re-learning to treasure that.

And as much as I do appreciate a book’s physical properties (yes I am one of those “I love the smell of old books” weirdos), I don’t concern myself with books as art objects or accessories. My positive associations with books as objects, the reason I like the smell of paper, dust, and glue, has almost entirely to do with what’s inside them, how the words affect me, and how the experience of reading saves me from the world.

It’s fine to argue that physical books are better than ebooks. But if all you’re talking about is which makes for a better subject for photographic projects, you’re missing the whole point.

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People Are Discovering that Reading on Their Phones Doesn’t Suck

The publishing industry has noticed that a lot of us are reading on our phones. Not just BuzzFeed listicles and Facebook statuses, but real, wordy books. Many years ago I thought it was quite the novelty that I had managed to read all of Frankenstein on my iPhone 3G, and didn’t hate doing so. Today, I read almost all my books on my phone.

This is to the exclusion of tablets and e-readers, and very intentionally so. A while ago it dawned on me that owning three remarkably similar (and expensive) devices that all performed widely overlapping tasks seemed decadent and redundant. At the same time, I had become enthralled by phablets, a.k.a. big screen phones. With quad-HD displays boasting over 500 pixels per inch, and phone screens not too different in size from a mass market paperback, the phablet easily replaced my iPad and my Kindle for book reading.

I’m not alone! In a piece in the Wall Street JournalJennifer Maloney reports:

In a Nielsen survey of 2,000 people this past December, about 54% of e-book buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012, according to a separate study commissioned by Nielsen.

And tablet and e-reader use is down as well. And it’s not just phablet people, even normals with their smaller iPhones 6 are reading full-length books on their phones. (Maloney says that both iPhones 6 are “sharper” than previous models, but that’s not correct, as only the iPhone 6 Plus has a higher resolution.)

There obvious concern is that deep reading will now be lost to the universe of notifications our phones provide:

With all their ringing, dinging and buzzing, smartphones are designed to alert and distract users, notes Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Even when a phone’s alerts are turned off, your brain is still primed for disruption when you pick it up, she said. That could make a phone worse for reading than an e-reader.

But “could” is not the same as “will.” Sentient people have to decide for themselves what they are going to prioritize. During a busy day, one might grab snippets of reading, but leave their notifications fully armed, because life does go on. But at night, say, the pings can be disabled, the display backlight can be dimmed, and you have a wholly different reading experience.

And of course there’s still dead-tree books, which I’m trying to read more of in order to go easier on my eyes at night before bed. The biggest problem with them, of course, is that they don’t sync. The book I read in a codex format is stuck inside those leaves, and I can’t dig into it at will from my phone wherever I am. Thus, some books become relegated to the bedside table, and that’s more or less fine.

Because there are plenty of books waiting for me on that big phone. The very device I wrote this post on!

Adapting to Reading on Screens (or, Nostalgic for the Smell of AMOLED)

Turns out that the young folks these days prefer to read longform material in print, not, as one might expect, on the screens of their devices. In fact, they seem to be the demographic that most prefers print to digital reading. I find it a tad baffling, but as one of the subjects of Michael S. Rosenwald’s piece in the Washington Post notes, unlike a smartphone or a tablet, a print book asks nothing more of you than to be read. No Twitter streams or YouTube distractions to be found there. I do get that.
I’m sympathetic to a lot of the warm feelings people have about print books. I share many of the attachments to dead-tree books, probably none more so than the smell of old mass market paperbacks. I also completely understand that there is (apparently) greater comprehension and engagement to be had from reading on print versus screens, but it seems that much of that comes from raw physical and visual associations that are more or less incidental artifacts of the form. (E-ink devices like Kindles fall somewhere in between these paradigms, not being as built for distraction as phones, but lacking the individual physical quirks of books.)

So what I’m wondering is whether we’ll just adjust. We’ll find other associations and hangups about our digital reading, maybe even nostalgia! Instead of the feel or smell of paper books, we’ll miss the eye-scratching low-res displays of our first devices, or the feedback (or lack thereof) of a physical button a previous device had that the new one lacks. (Maybe there’s a smell to AMOLED versus LCD?) I don’t think that kind of thing will improve comprehension, but I do wonder if our brains, individually and societally, will just adapt to the pixels.

Because it’s not as though we are evolutionarily optimized for ink-on-codex. There’s nothing about humans biologically that would favor reading in print versus reading electronically. We’re not “designed” to read it all! (Reading is kind of the ur-lifehack.) So as one form of reading becomes less ubiquitous, I don’t see why we won’t simply glom on to the newer way. It may take a couple of generations to shake off all the old baggage, but reading off a screen is no more “unnatural” than reading off a page, a scroll, or a (stone) tablet.

Formed by Boredom

This worries me a little (by Toby Litt in Granta):

A couple of years ago, I spent three months playing World of Warcraft – partly as research for a short story I was writing, mostly because I became addicted to it. This convinced me of one thing: If the computer games which exist now had existed back in 1979 I would not have read any books, I think; I would not have seen writing as an adequate entertainment; I would not have seen going outdoors as sufficiently interesting to bother with.

Similarly, I find it difficult to understand why any eleven-year-old of today would be sufficiently bored to turn inward for entertainment.

This raises the question as to how future writers will come about, without ‘silence, exile and cunning’ – without the need for these things?

I was formed, as a writer, by the boredom of the place in which I lived.

Now, I did have video games when I was eleven (not anything of the scale or complexity of WoW, but I had the NES and the Segal Genesis), and I think they are a big reason (second only to cable TV) as to why I almost never read books at that age, despite being “bookish” in all other respects. With rare exceptions, I allowed the television screen to use up almost every single waking minute of my life. I can’t tell you how much I regret that.

Eventually, I got bored. In my boredom, I learned to play — just barely — some guitar, and wrote songs. Or wrote in my journal. As a young adult, particularly when I was a working actor without television available to me, I got really bored, and dove head first into my songwriting, and other reading and writing as well, for a good stretch of about five years.

But in the thick of the social web today, along with the rigor of parenthood, I am once again rarely bored. I loathe television now, even to the point where even high-quality programming makes me impatient and anxious for the time I lose to viewing it. But my iPad and Mac and iPhone ensure that I never need be without distraction once the kid is asleep.

A happy difference now from my days of TV-cured boredom is that I spend a huge amount of time on my devices reading, far more than I did as a child or teenager. I am not delving into genuine books as much as I would like (and not nearly as much as I did when I was essentially bereft of television and Internet access), but my iPad serves primarily as a reader for long- and medium-form written content. I almost never visit YouTube, I play almost no games, etc.

But that’s me, a nerd who never fully embraced his nerddom in his teens, and is now trying to intellectually and culturally catch up. To today’s eleven-year-olds, will such an endeavor even occur to them? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think, at least, that they’ll do better than me. On a hopeful note, my two-year-old son Toby, who, although he does love his episodes of Dinosaur Train, absolutely loves books and being read to. I will do all I can to keep him loving books. He’ll be a better man for it.

Reading is Self-Mastery

D.G. Myers positions reading not as an escape but as a challenge to ourselves:

To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? [ … ]

Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development.

You can say the same about most great art, and it certainly need not be limited to fiction, though I grant that a fictional narrative will likely place the reader closer to the thoughts of the subject at hand. But consider great theatre and film, even music or dance in the more abstract sense, in how they can shake us from our comfort zones, force us to empathize with characters to whom we would normally never relate, those of different times, situations, and motivations.

I’ve cited it before, but it bears repeating here. I am once again reminded of the panhandler interviewed in Al Pacino’s documentary, Looking for Richard. 

We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. You know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other, but if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent. Does Shakespeare help us? He did more than help us. He instructed us… . If we think words are things and have no feelings in words then we say things to each other that mean nothing. But if we felt what we said, we’d say less and mean more!

So say we all.

“If They Like Printed Books, They Should Be Buying the Damn Things”

Richard Nash validates my take on what I call the “But I Love the Smell of Books” argument against the digitization of the traditional codex, focusing on the fact that if books are so important as physical artifacts, they are not being treated as such by the industry or even consumers:

If they like printed books, they should be buying the damn things instead of whining about other people’s preferred mode of reading. So I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years.

… Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore.

Nash argues that those who truly value the physical book will continue to purchase it, that this product will always be available as long as demand exists (which he presumes it will). The real problem for publishing, he says, is one I’ve seen made in a similar way before at Booksquare, there is too much emphasis on what a book costs in terms of dollars rather than on the quality of the content or the experience:

What does a person do when they want something to read? One of the big mistakes that often gets made in publishing is we focus a lot on price. We focus on how much a book costs and we decide whether it’s worth it or not. Now we’ve got a lot more books that are absolutely impoverished. The reality is that people’s decision-making process has a lot more to do with time than with money. It’s 15 hours in the inside of your head. Books are so cheap compared to the hours of entertainment they provide. The problem is, do they provide entertainment? Is it in fact a book you want to read? If after four hours you hate it, what most people say is “I can’t believe I spent fifteen dollars on this.” But what they really mean is “I can’t believe I just wasted four hours of my life on this.”

This is particularly salient for me. I’m not a terribly fast reader — I’m told I “subvocalize” which condemns me to the literary slow lane — so the quality of time spend with a given text is more important to me than almost any other aspect of a book. Yes, I think on the whole 20 to 30 dollars is too much to spend on most books, but, for example, the quality of the experience of reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem was worth far more.