22 July, 2009

Attention Paid

It's high time I post something new, huh?

It's occurred to me that my blog is entitled Bibliophonic--a neologism that I fancy conveys the meaning "the music of books"--and yet the past six posts have been strictly about movies, there hasn't been anything of a literary subject since late March, and I haven't written about any of the books I've read since February 11, which perhaps suggests that I haven't read anything since then when in fact I've finished fourteen books (plus a couple by Dr. Seuss during an outing to Books-a-Million).

And that doesn't seem right to me.

I enjoy a lot of things in life. I enjoy the art form of narrative cinema and how it uses so much to try to express something of truth--dialogue, a story, music, framed and arranged visuals, facial expressions, the nuances of human behavior, editing and cinematography that can focus and redirect our attentions, that can influence our emotions through automatic nervous stimulation. Maybe that last part doesn't make sense, but think about how frantic your heart and mind feels when during an action scene the camera keeps cutting every few seconds. And imagine applying those frantic cuts to some other type of scene--a romantic one or an extremely serious moment--and think about what reactions that would evoke. I think movies are a great way to share one vision of the truth.

I also enjoy books. I love the way you can climb inside them. I love how time moves differently when you're reading; how you never quite know what the clock is going to say when you look up from the page, and how it's surprising sometimes to discover that the sun has set and you're sitting in a dark room, struggling to continue seeing the print.

There's a lot of talk lately about the death of the book. Not many people read these days. I don't need to see statistics on declining reading habits (though I have seen them, and they're pretty depressing, as well as anger-inducing); I know from experience. I don't spend a lot of time talking to other people about what they're reading because many people aren't reading anything. What I've described in the last paragraph may be an unknown experience to many people. I've witnessed the awkward silence that comes when I talk too long about whatever book is occupying my mind.

But having said that, I don't believe in the death of the book. Even though I've seen countless Myspace and Facebook profiles with witty descriptions like "book?? wots a book?" I trust that many people like the idea of reading, that most people enjoy reading but don't feel the urge to develop the time-consuming habit of sitting down and devoting hours of concentration to a single book.

And yet I know Harry Potter has stirred many souls (including my own), and those books are quite long. Those books benefit from a cultural pull that allows people to overcome their urges not to read. In addition to the well-marketed, blockbuster films, there are people in the know who reassure new fans, "Oh, but they left out such great, important stuff!" On top of that, more impatient viewers will want to read the subsequent books to gratify their cliffhanger yearnings rather than wait a few years for the next movie. Plus, it's impossible to avoid the Harry Potter phenomenon; I knew what Quidditch was long before seeing any of the movies or reading any of the books, and that's a bizarre fact to wrap my head around. When the seventh book came out, it was impossible on any given subway trip to not bump into a dozen people carrying the book. We want to be a part of that community. We want to know what all the fuss is about. We want access to all this seemingly important cultural/trivial knowledge about horcruxes and Muggles. And so--like the compulsion to get a cell phone plan with a text messaging service, or to get a Twitter account--we make way in our minds and our lives for this new demand on our attention.

If only books and reading in general could have such a strong cultural pull?

I know many people are against devices such as the Kindle, and out of Luddite-prejudice I was, too, at first. Who wants to take such a device to bed with them? That's a common argument. You can't flip through a Kindle book to see what startling words or images strike your eyes. You can't smell the ink or the paper or the glue on the binding, can't smell the decades of use. You can't proudly display a well-creased Kindle spine on your shelf.

But so what? There are plenty of other things to smell. And the vanity of a huge bookshelf isn't that vital--in any case, there's always Goodreads and LibraryThing for showing off.

I have a lot of books--perhaps close to a thousand--and I've moved them six different times amongst three different cities. Up stairs, down sidewalks, through narrow corridors. It's incredibly difficult, moving all those hundreds of pounds of books. I'd have significantly fewer belongings to cart if I didn't have any books, and if I were to ever move overseas, it would be almost impossible to take my library with me. With each new move I find myself wishing for a shrinking machine. Which is what a Kindle is: eight hundred or so books that can fit in your pocket.

And of course it's more eco-friendly, too. No dead trees in a Kindle book.

But most importantly, I think Kindle can inspire reading in people who wouldn't normally want to. Maybe not on a large scale, but at least it's movement in the right direction. Kindle may be killing the "book" (which will never, of course, happen--people will always love having some colorful titles on their shelves and coffee tables), but it's certainly not doing anything bad to literature itself.

I think my goal in life (and I know this blog post is rambling all over the place) is to work toward a world where reading resumes the vital role it once played in our lives. In addition to my personal goal of finding truth and meaning (and who doesn't have that goal?), I want to help create a world where reading and writing are more common. I like Better World Books, which gathers discarded, unwanted, and unneeded books (often from landfills) from all over the world and redistributes them at a cheap price (with free shipping!). Some of their proceeds also go toward Books for Africa, which (this is a no-brainer:) provides books for Africa.

I've wanted to be a writer since at least the age of eight, when I discovered during writing assignments in third grade that I actually had a talent with words. I had always had books while growing up. My mother loved reading Green Eggs and Ham to me as much as I enjoyed hearing it. By kindergarten, I took for granted that I was literate. I remember reading a picture book about Winnie the Pooh during playtime while my teacher commented to her assistant that a classmate looked so cute "pretending to read" while running her index finger under the words. What did they think was so special about her pretending, I remember thinking, when I was actually reading without the need of a guide finger?

I had a closet full of books about all the crazy things that could be dreamed of--dinosaurs, castles, monsters, talking goldfinches. I didn't think about where those books came from and how they were made until one morning my grandfather showed up with a typewriter. I was six or seven. I realized that I could match the letters in my dinosaur book with the letters on the typewriter keys and after a great deal of noise and whirs and dings a page that had previously been nothing but a white sheet would become a carbon copy of the book.

I took a keen interest in the typewriter (and I still have it, in my closet), and my grandfather never denied me access. In spite of the banging racket, I was never told to keep quiet. So by age eight I was applying my knowledge of castle keeps and moats to stories about kings bestowing their land upon virtuous knights. By age nine, inspired by the movie Clue I loved so much, I was dabbling in ensemble mysteries. By ten, I was writing a better version of the Mortal Kombat movie while also maintaining a biweekly newspaper with the latest goings-on around the living room (my grandpa chopped down a tree, my sister went to New York and will hopefully bring back souvenirs), glowing reviews of the movies my grandfather had taken me to (The Sandlot: 5 stars; Mortal Kombat: 5 stars), and made up sports scores that my brother found ridiculous (Dolphins 56-93 49ers). My aunt just focused on how humorous the misspellings and typos were, but my grandma was my most loyal customer, always willing to dish out the steep ten cent fee that my grandpa had recommended.

At the end of fourth grade Mrs. Carolino passed around a ballot sheet with twenty-five different superlatives, and next to each one we were to write the name of a different student. There were only twenty-three students, and so everybody was to receive something (Best Smile, Best Athlete, Best Singer...). At the very top of the ballot list, even before more obvious categories like "Best Dressed" was the somewhat unusual "Best Writer" category, which I knew was meant for me. There's a picture of me grinning and holding my certificate, and it still hangs on my mother's fridge.

Reading and writing are an unshakable part of who I am now. Though at times I toyed with the idea of being a lawyer, a doctor, a meteorologist, or a criminal psychologist (Silence of the Lambs was a damn good movie and an excellent book), when I applied for college there was no doubt I wanted to major in English, even though I wasn't sure what such a degree would accomplish. I tacked on a minor in creative writing and a concentration in world literature, and just this past May I received my Masters in fiction writing. I'm to be published in The Ne'er-Do-Well soon, and hopefully other publications are forthcoming.

But the point I'm making is this: I had books all around me as a child, and now I seek happiness through reading and writing. I seek to connect with the voices of everyone who's ever told a story, made a film, or composed a song. Each voice shines a light on what it means to be alive, to be a human, to occupy a place on this earth. Dead people have spoken to me, as have anonymous people, recluses, and elderly women on the other side of the earth. I have learned and am learning to deal with death, love, forgiveness, anger, god, catastrophe, and everything else through the books I've read, the movies I've seen, the conversations I've had, and the music I've enjoyed.

There's so much in the world that doesn't teach us much of anything, that doesn't bring us any closer to enlightenment. Eating a bag of Doritos. Reading about the fictional gossip surrounding Michael Jackson's death. Watching advertisements that scream at us from the television. Worrying about what's going to happen if we miss the bus tomorrow morning.

Though we collectively have no time (or attention span) to dedicate to reading, we find the time for this distracting bullshit. ADHD has become an American way of life. Even I have read books that afterward I didn't recall, realizing that I hadn't in fact paid attention to anything except the naggings, worryings, and distractions in my mind, scanning all the words with my eyes but not really reading them. And I'm somebody who's well-trained in reading. What about people who aren't?

There's an ad for a phone that's playing at the beginning of movies at Landmark Theaters these days:

The first time I saw this ad, I grabbed at my head and wanted to have a nervous breakdown. Nevermind who would need such a bombardment of information--why would anyone want it? It's impossible to process so much at once. It's foolish to believe that one ever could. Humans weren't meant to multitask (and less than a hundred years ago, we didn't); when multiple activities go on at once, a different area of the brain activates--the area that controls rote actions and muscle memory predominates. So though you may think you're maximizing your time by carrying on a phone conversation, cooking dinner, watching television, and studying your Spanish homework all at the same time, odds are you're not really doing any of them at all, except maybe making the dinner. You're not really paying attention to your friend, not really comprehending what's going on in the show, and certainly not remembering anything you're studying. Only when we concentrate on one thing at a time do we use higher levels of brain power and actually accomplish something that can be productive and memorable.

Consider this: many times I fix myself a sandwich, sit down at my computer, read some movie trivia on IMDb, and then realize that I'm holding an empty plate. The food will have been eaten without me once stopping to think about how it tastes or smells or feels in my mouth, what it looks like, what it'll do to my body. And so my mind's still hungry and I return to the kitchen to continue munching and overeating.

But not anymore. The laundry room in our apartment building has a table that serves as a freeswap, and on it one day I was stopped in my tracks by a book called Rapt by Winifred Gallagher. The book is about paying attention and focusing on what's really important, and whoever designed the book cover certainly knew how to grab attention because I wanted to read it instantly. I once read a New Yorker article about itching that made me itchy the entire time I was reading it; Gallagher has chosen a perfect subject to write about. It's impossible not to pay attention to a book about the values of paying attention.

Few books have changed my life. This one has. Using experimental, behavioral, and cognitive science, as well as the stories of exemplary focused people, Gallagher establishes that the best way to take control of your life is to harness the reins of what you're paying attention to, to focus not on nagging self-doubts, petty judgments, worries of the future, regrets of the past, the bombardments of cultural overload, hyperactive multitasking, the woes of our jobs or our aching bodies, but to focus on what we want to be thinking about, who we want to be, what's going on all around us, and how to stay on the path that leads where we want to be going.

Suddenly I'm walking the streets not staring at the dirty sidewalks and the trash in the gutters, distractedly thinking about how bad work was, fearing that passersby are judging my appearance, hoping that nobody mugs me, pretending to not notice panhandlers while they're yelling at me--instead I'm looking up, smiling, making eye contact, listening to the birds, admiring architecture, and getting inspired by everything that's around me. I look forward to the future; I feel like I have as much control over it as possible, instead of feeling hopeless and doomed.

There were muscles in my neck that throbbed with cramps for a few days. I wasn't used to holding my head up high.

And though I've passed a certain building down the street hundreds of times, it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that I noticed the half dozen devilish gargoyles hurling boulders on top of it.

So here's what I'm focused on: making the world a smarter, more peaceful, and thriving community through literature. Writing a book (and then allowing others to read it) is an excellent way to share one's knowledge of the world, but kids in Burkina Faso can't share that knowledge if they don't know how to write. And if they don't have books, then odds are they can't read or write. Odds are they will never share their vision through words. So I believe in supporting world literacy and organizations like Books for Africa.

I want to be an advocate for world literature, and a supporter of translations. There are nations with vast canons of diverse literature that are inaccessible to Americans because of a lack of translation and publication. Some Nobel Prize contenders have never been translated into English despite teaching so much and sharing so much beauty with their native speakers.

I want to learn languages, and I'm currently working on Russian. I'm fascinated by the ways in which language shapes and is shaped by our minds. I'm mesmerized by how language adapts and unfolds and blends over time. I even like fictional languages, which hypothesize how fictional people could express their own unique thoughts, and I plan to dabble in creating them some day.

I want to read literature from every culture in the universe, which is why I've set up Bibliotrekking, which is still under construction. The world is full of many viewpoints, secrets, obstacles, and solutions--and by exploring and understanding all of them, by really living inside a writer's heartfelt words for a few hours, we can bring ourselves closer to compassion and happiness. Who would want to kill a Palestinian after reading his poetry? Who wouldn't think twice about slaughtering a rabbit after reading Watership Down? Who could read all of Beloved and still think that slavery was a pretty good idea? Perhaps excluding political vitriol and propaganda, most people don't put down a book and feel like killing. Most books about war written by people who have been involved in it don't feel too keenly about the joys of war.

I want to share the little that I've learned about my own small world through my own writing. I want people to read what I've written and maybe feel a little fuller as a person.

I want to inspire people to read as much as I do. I want to have conversations about great books. I don't want to judge people for liking The Da Vinci Code. My first adult book was Stephen King's The Shining, and I read it in sixth grade. Before I had finished it, my mom had bought me his Desperation, so that I would have something to read once the one book was finished. And every time one book was finished, she'd always let me get another. My grandfather never refused a request to take me to the library, and I don't recall ever being told what I could or couldn't read. I'm grateful for that. And if I hadn't have begun my habit with fun, easy, and sensational stuff like "The Langoliers" (all of which had the further pleasure of movie tie-ins that further cemented the stories), then maybe I would have never moved on to Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo. And I still enjoy Harry Potter (and, having seen the sixth film already, am looking forward to beginning the sixth book tomorrow).

My mother tells me that my niece--"just like me"--loves to read and always has a pile of books around her. I want to encourage that. I want to be an uncle who arrives with a treasure chest of stories. I want to read to my own future children. I want to teach literature and share the beautiful things I've learned, the wonderful pastime that has followed me through life.

Anyway, I've been rambling for a long time, and maybe some of this doesn't even make sense. I was going to write my thoughts so far of Watership Down, which I started reading a few days ago, but I'm running out of steam.

There's going to be more Bibliophonic in the future--I'll continue with the movie reviews from the They Shoot Pictures list, but I'm also going to be writing a lot more about what I'm reading. I have to tell myself not to think of everything I write for this blog as a scholarly essay. Sometimes I can just write about my gut reactions to things. And I think I'm going to be doing more of that in the future.

So stay tuned.

And thanks for bearing with me.

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