Michiana Chronicles: A distant and eroding shore
It was a first visit to a new optometrist and he was making small talk from the far side of a Phoropter device, tweaking dials, toggling between lens corrections, his masked face about a foot from my own.
Which would you say is clearer – this, or this? This, or this?
We’d already covered work and family and the exam was now into the homestretch and Doc moved on to other topics.
How about hobbies?
Well, I like music. And canoeing. And I am a writer.
He perked up – A writer? That’s interesting – then turned reflective.
Not a lot of readers anymore, huh?
I had already noticed his hands were of the sort you see on third-generation dentists, jewelers, judges and phrenologists – softest and cleanest, nails carefully tended, buffed and gleaming.
Not a reader yourself, huh?
Who has the time?
In an essay published in 1994, Lorrie Moore explained why she wrote and why she estimated anyone else did so or cared about what writers did.
“It’s crucial to keep ourselves, as a species, interested in ourselves … Art has been given to us to keep us interested and engaged – rather than distracted by materialism or sated with boredom – so that we can attach to this life, a life which might, otherwise, be an unbearable one.”
I include the publishing date, 28 years ago, because Moore frames her notions of writing as art and art as rooted in a tradition of meaning-making. I understand this language, grew up with it, still use and practice it, but also find myself continually aware that we live in an era of accelerating artlessness and incoherence and, so often, meaninglessness.
This was not on the early navigational charts for the children of Boomers but here we are, on a distant and eroding shore. It’s Rage Time in America and there are torrents of words and oceans of video, titillating or triggering or tittering but also utterly transitory, stroke- or chuckle-inducing then gone like a gumdrop or fart.
When I worked in a newsroom my colleagues who escaped the Associated Press described their work as making word piles, and this phrase informs my thinking about an increasingly post-literate age of empty content, huge mountain ranges of world piles, Himalayan landfills of garbage podcasts, YouTube hype videos, Twitter threads and New York Times subscriber-only no-news newsletters. It’s an unexpurgated and dulling mess, words but not writing. Watching and listening but not hearing. Reading but not thinking.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Twitter is an especial weakness and reminds me of smoking – stupid, agitating, killing and silly. Perhaps you too have tried to explain, to anyone else in the physical world, a spouse or friend or frenemy, why a Tweet about a Tweet made you laugh.
I realized I had a mild-to-severe problem when I sat down to read some Emily Dickinson poems from a St. Joe Library book. Dickinson wrote with such a personal and unmistakable style and my reading eyes and reading brain had become so habituated to the spastic anti-style of Twitter that I could not easily shift gears. I read speedily, messily, skimmingly, flat and benumbed.
Then forced myself to slow down. To re-read what I had not really read, and, finally, to find the music, and Dickinson’s playfulness, on the page.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Emily Dickinson published almost no poems during her lifetime. She wrote for herself, on paper scraps, and had zero personal brand.
She was attuned to her own universe, developed her own mind and own voice accordingly.
Compulsory public education began in this country in the 1850s and the century or so that followed was a flowering of American language and reading. An age of literacy – not for all, a terrible failure, but for many, among all castes, and with an expectation that writing and reading and the thinking that accompany both were important elements of adult and citizen life. This morning, online, a machine will read today’s Washington Post to you. Very future-is-now and content-consuming but not reading.
Not reading is not reading, and reading is such a wonder, crucial to keeping us, in Lorrie Morre’s phrasing, interested and engaged. Writing is hard and usually unpleasant but also clarifying. Per Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.”
What it means.
What does it mean?
What do you make of it?
Music: “Space Captain” by Joe Cocker, from "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"