My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.
As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.
. . .
“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
. . .
With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.
Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.
Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.
Since the 2016 presidential election, the level of public discourse among Americans has tanked. We’ve never been particularly intelligent expressing ourselves online, but our capacity for thinking deeply seems to have disappeared entirely from public forums.
Both sides of the political spectrum are equally guilty of this; the left is no wiser than the right. Conservatives and liberals live in deeply entrenched extremes: You are either a good guy or a bad guy; the issue is always black or white. There is no middle ground. We have lost the ability to even ponder nuance, to give gray space even a second’s consideration.
Most forms of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, encourage us to think shallowly. We are urged to publish every thought as soon as it crosses our minds. No hesitation. No research. No contemplation. There’s this horrible pressure for “public figures” or talking heads or anyone who has a modest “following” to have immediate reactions to every item in the 24/7 news cycle. And they capitulate. The rest of us follow suit: Nearly 60% of us share articles without even reading them. This is no way to process information. We’re bad at it. We can’t think well in such a reactionary environment (of which our president is a perfect example/consequence).
I find all of this troubling, and I also believe this loss of deep thinking is intimately connected to the “continuous partial attention” that we’ve all been trained in since we became addicted to screens a decade or more ago.
We’re so incapable of giving our full attention to anything that we miss everything. We’ve never been good at multitasking, even though we all like to secretly believe that we are. We live in a state of constant distraction, eagerly seeking more distractions as we slog through the day. These are not habits that lead to thinking well.
In light of these trends, I feel increasingly convicted of the need for slowness in my everyday life. This is why I’ve stopped using social media. It’s helped a great deal in reducing distractions and in the amount of time I use my phone, but I am still tempted by other things: email, the feed of news articles, mindless internet surfing that I tell myself is “research” for something.
I sense a need to overhaul my expectations of screens. The internet is useful; I approach it as a utility in my daily life. I work on it, I find information, I buy things. But I need to stop thinking of it as entertainment or as a salve for loneliness or lassitude. The people I know who think well and deeply seem to also approach the internet in this way. They’re not news junkies; they consume content deliberately and slowly, and most of it is offline. They’re not dependent on their phones for distraction or validation. I want to learn more from them and study their ways.
I don’t think I’ve ever been a deep thinker, but I am realizing this growing gulf between my desire to think well and my ability to actually attempt it. This is a small new year’s resolution to keep turning away from internet frippery and to find the useful ways to interact with screens without killing my capacity for thought.
Meanwhile, I’ll just be waiting here, trying to figure out what all this means for my inner life (and trying not to think about when the next season of Terrace House airs).
If you see or communicate with me at all on a regular basis, you know that we found a house to rent in May. I’m over the moon about it for a number of reasons, the primary one being that we can soon adopt a dog.
The little white house comes with a sizable fenced-in backyard for the dog and extensive garden plots all around the side of the house. Our landlord, the owner, is a prodigious gardener and we have inherited the pleasant charge to care for her garden. (I am presently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farm memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am chastened by her simple observation that the vast majority of us couldn’t grow our own food if our lives depended upon it. It’s now a partial motivator to learn a lot about gardening.) The house is also a short walk to vast forest trails that take you into a 280-acre park, the crown jewel of the town’s park system.
I am excited about the prospect of living here and the house’s self-contained exhortation for us to live outdoors. It will be an especially marvelous place to live in warmer months. We don’t spend a lot of time outside now. Our current apartment is on the second floor of a giant old house, situated on a busy street. We share a front porch with our housemates and our backyard is small and mostly inaccessible. But this place? It’s practically crying out for us to be outdoors at every possible opportunity. Adopting a dog will be just another big motivation to develop a closer relationship with the outdoors.
A close relationship with nature is not common these days. I spend eight hours a day at a computer at work. Then I come home, make dinner, read, and go to bed. I am ashamed to admit that there are some weekends when I don’t even go outside. My relationship with the outdoor world has been diminishing ever since I left the free university life and got a full-time job, a phenomenon that I suspect many of you may relate to.
I know that living too much indoors is bad for my body, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s also bad for my soul.
A book I recently read reinforced this thought. I just finished reading Nicholas G. Carr’s short treatise, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In sum, the Internet is not doing great things to our brains; our memory and powers of concentration have shrunk to depressingly miniscule levels. The following passage is an excerpt of a study he cites about concentration:
The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”
There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.
Carr’s summation of this study resonated with me. I feel better about myself when I’m not on a computer. I feel more centered, whole, and focused when I’m outside. A simple walk suffuses me with feelings of peace and joy and goodwill on earth to men. In short, I feel more human outdoors. I am busy, distracted, and anxious inside. I also love the peace of our home, but it is a distinct feeling from the peace that nature lends me. I can’t find it anywhere else.
These are a lot of disjointed thoughts, but I really just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to living outside come May.