The Gutenberg Elegies

The TLDR: We should all be reading more fiction.

I first came across this book by Sven Birkerts via a review and mentioned it a few months back. I finally finished up reading it this past weekend and it’s a winner.

Originally published in 1996, some of the references to tech are obviously a bit dated, but Birkerts makes interesting and compelling observations that are still resoundingly relevant today. I had to remind myself writing that now, over 20 years later, seems startlingly prescient, at the time must have had people calling him reactionary or melodramatic.

Interesting as well were the new forward and afterword added with the 2006 edition. Birkerts is able to reflect on the state of things since his book’s initial publication 10 years before. Of pertinent note to me was the fact that he now has children and is trying to navigate the world of parenting within the context of radical shifts in society and culture – something I too continue to struggle with.

Here’s some sections that I highlighted for their particular resonance with me:

“The primary human relations—to space, time, nature, and to other people—have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun.” (Referring to the advent of online technology and the Internet.)

“We have been stripped not only of familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference. Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”

“[The thing that George taught me…] was that knowledge was less a means to an end than a matter of self-cultivation, a way of transforming the experience of the daily. To be curious, to study, to find out – this was the path to the world. Knowledge exposed connections, imparted significance to the incidental.”

“Reading argues for a larger conception of the meaningful, and its implicit injunction (seldom heeded even by readers) is that we change our lives, that we strive to live them in the light of meaning.”

“What reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny.”

“We do not learn so much from the novel itself, the lessons of its situations, as we do from having strayed free of our customary boundaries. On return, those boundaries seem more articulated, more our own; we understand their degree of permeability, and this is a vital kind of knowing.”

“The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside me. I read books to read myself.”

“Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the humanities, knowledge is a means, yes, but it is a means less to instrumental application than to something more nebulous: understanding. […] The data—the facts, connections, the texts themselves—matter insofar as they help us to deepen and extend that narrative. In these disciplines, the process of study may be as vital to the understanding as are the materials studied.”

“Prophets and promoters have long promised that technology would set us free, creating vast quantities of leisure time; the fantasy has backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time; our lifestyles have us in harness, we are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked.”

“When we read with our eyes, we hear the words in the theater of our auditory awareness. The voice we conjure up is our own—it is the sound-print of the self.”

“I fall back on what is finally an unverifiable impression – that for all of our supposed riches, our culture feels impoverished; it lacks the kinds of animation that regular exposure to ideas and works of imagination supplies; and it is without an affirmative circulation of mental and spiritual energies.”

“Isn’t this the crux of it all? That the whole question of intellectual an artistic mattering has far less to do with the quantitative availability of ideas and expressions, and much more with their impact upon the individual and, through him, the society? That what matters is not the sound but the resonance of the sound?”

“Our lives are busy, distracted, multitracked, stressed. We may have altered our cognitive apparatus—speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli—in such a way that we can no longer take in the world as it was meant to be taken in. The price of retooling for the electronic millennium is a sacrifice of the incompatible aptitudes required for reading and meditative introspection. […] That we live all day among buttons and signals instead of tools and materials has not brought us appreciably closer to the interior. It has, if anything, made us less available to the kinds of self-inspection that enlightened living would demand.”

“There will be people who will never in their lives have the experience that was, until our time, the norm—who will never stand in isolated silence among trees and stones, out of shouting distance of any other person, with no communication implement, forced to confront the slow, grainy momentum of time passing.”

If you’ve read this far, kudos. I think I’ve gone well beyond a lot of people’s attention spans and/or patience at this point.

One of the ‘blurbs’ on the book cover of this edition from The New Yorker reads: “Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it.”

This was certainly the case with me. I have been reading a ton of non-fiction in the past year or two, under the auspices that it was ‘good for me’, often reading books that were an absolute chore to get through. Probably not so much a condemnation of their authors or the subject matter, but more that I was ‘punching above my weight’ trying to stretch my brain. Reading Birkerts on reading was so compelling that half way through his book, I abandoned it and read two works of fiction before returning to finish it just recently. This is not to say I will no longer be reading non-fiction, but Birkerts’ writing has brought me back round to the notion that I should be reading more fiction and literature – including poetry – than I have been.

Drinking Coffee, Looking at the River

I was sitting looking across this river yesterday morning from the exact same spot and it was so foggy I could barely see the riverbank nearest to me, yet today clear as a bell. One thought I had is that damn, the early settlers and indigenous folks who used to canoe across the river must have had a hell of a time on days like that when getting out into the middle of the river would mean not being able to see either side.

Whatever challenges I face today, I can take solace that paddling endlessly lost in the middle of a foggy river won’t be one of them. Then I realized everything is falling apart. I was reminded that everything is in a constant state of change. Even things I think of as ‘permanent’ and solid – rocks, steel, my coffee cup – it’s all disintegrating at various rates. Our bodies – even our thoughts and brain chemistry, all constantly changing. I’m collecting cosmic ‘stuff’ from everything around me. If everything is in a constant state of falling apart, where is substance? Where is truth – what is real?

As usual, my favorite punk rock buddhist monk, Brad Warner, saves the day on this one. “Life is just action in the present moment. […] The only real facts are those at the present moment. […] The world where we live is existence in the present moment.” That’s it. The only thing that is ‘real’ is this moment. Reality is THIS moment. And the next one, and so on.

Maybe you’re having a real shitty time right at this moment. Don’t worry, that’s gonna change, give yourself a moment. You don’t have to worry about it, there’s no stopping it, instead realize and accept what is. And while you’re doing that, Brad again points out “You are not just a thing that inhabits this moment. You ARE this moment.” In this moment, “There is one thing, the Universe” and “The truth of the Universe IS the Universe itself.”

You are a part of the whole process – the whole changing Universe – not separate from it. You are exchanging material with the rocks, the trees, the water, animals and even the garbage rotting in that can over there. So, uh, yeah. What do you guys think about when you’re sitting drinking coffee looking at the river?

Different Rivers

When I moved here in 2006 I discovered there were two options for a commuting route from my house, both about 15km one-way. One was on the road, the other, almost entirely on converted rail-to-trail. My policy has always been and continues to be to avoid slicing and dicing with grumpy morning folks trapped in confined metal boxes, so whenever possible, the trail it is.

Up until 2010, my commute to work took me across two rivers, The Nashwaak and the St. John. After 2010, I changed jobs and now work on the north side of the St. John, so only cross the Nashwaak each trip. I used to keep track of my rides and mileage and all that but have stopped bothering. So, subtracting weekends, holidays, weather, sleep-in’s and other misses and adding back in various market trips, rides for coffee and group rides, I’d say conservatively on average I’ve commuted or ridden this route 150 times a year (each way, so 300 total) – at some point during every season and kind of weather you can conjure.*

Some dude, wiser than I, many seasons ago, once observed that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Well then it must also apply that a man can’t CROSS the same river twice either.

Doing the fancy math that accounts for both jobs, that means approximately 5,100 different rivers crossed for this cat in 13 years. And I probably have at least half that many pictures clogging up the internet and cloud storage to prove it.

The thing is, they are truly different. Every. Time. Which is why I almost always stop. And while I didn’t always stop, make coffee, eat home made granola with chocolate milk and watch the sun come up on Fredericton across the St. John while tons of ducks do whatever it is ducks do in the morning – I have been quite a bit recently. If I had my druthers (and I don’t know what a ‘druther’ is – or why anyone would want one) I’d just ride my bike around rivers drinking coffee all day, but like so many of you, I have to go to work. I’m pretty sure though, that if one HAS to go to work, I may have stumbled onto the absolute best way to do it. Even without coffee and snacks.

*That’s also roughly 58,500km of commuting for those playing along at home. Also, there’s not enough space here to discuss how I have changed as a man, so don’t ask.

Reasons to be Cheerful

“News for when you’ve had too much news.”

Reasons to be Cheerful is a non-profit online editorial project that is tonic for tumultuous times. 

We tell stories that reveal that there are, in fact, a surprising number of reasons to feel cheerful. Many of these reasons come in the form of smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. We’re here to tell you about some of them. Through sharp reporting, our stories balance a sense of healthy optimism with journalistic rigor, and find cause for hope. We are part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.

Reasons to be Cheerful was founded by artist and musician David Byrne, who believes in the power of approaching the world with curiosity—in art, in music, in collaboration and in life. Under the banner of Byrne’s Arbutus Foundation, Reasons to be Cheerful embodies this sensibility, applying it now to the future of our world. Through stories of hope, rooted in evidence, Reasons to be Cheerful aims to inspire us all to be curious about how the world can be better, and to ask ourselves how we can be part of that change.

David Byrne to the rescue again. “Same as it ever was.”

Good Luck With Your Efforts

Surly Disc Trucker

I took a little break from the internet space for awhile. Did some things. A lot of sitting and reading. Quite a bit of just sitting. It occurred to me that The Walrus was right. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Read: we are all connected, we are all one.

My friend Amy – she of the mighty movement and art mojo – talks about movement as art. How we conduct ourselves through space is artistic expression. Walking. Lifting heavy objects. Waving hello. She spoke once of a bike ride being a piece of artwork. How you pick something up is art. How you pet your dog. We are all creating as we move through space and time.

I like that idea. That’s very nice, but I have a bit of bad news. The Universe doesn’t give a shit about you (or me) or our art. In the Grand Scheme of Things (not to be confused with the Internet of Things, which doesn’t care about you either, but just wants to know what you’re doing every waking moment for marketing purposes), you don’t matter. As a species en masse, we conduct ourselves daily as if we – individually and collectively – do matter. A considerable problem. If we don’t matter either collectively or individually, what does?

I’m here to say your effort. You are insignificant, but your effort isn’t. If we are all connected, our individual efforts all have impact on the whole. Good effort. Meaningful effort. Sincere effort. Compassionate effort. The Buddha called it Right Effort, but he doesn’t really matter either – his effort does.

What’s this got to do with me being back on the Internets? Well there’s quite a few folks on here who’s efforts I missed connecting with. And I also missed sharing some creations, some experiments, some art with other people, and this was a somewhat tolerable place to do that. I don’t wish to be ‘influenced’, I wish to be inspired. I want to share, but currently that word has been hijacked and sullied. It makes people cringe. People share ‘content’. Let’s say I want to enlighten. My friend Andrew said that I should. That it would be a good thing – that regardless of the outcome it would be an effort worth making. So here we are. Good luck with your efforts.