Everything that has been excluded

Christmas cards
Christmas cards going out, from years past.

I’m always thinking about reading, but I have been thinking about it in a more targeted way lately, as it pertains to my job as a content strategist/designer.

In Journey Group’s publication on Medium, I decided to make the case for preserving deep reading online: Digital Readers Deserve Better.

. . .

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.

Slow thinking

Morning calligraphy practice + a donut + Yorkshire Gold tea.

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).


The Internet’s bad attitude

Crape myrtle in the front yard
Our gargantuan crape myrtle in the front yard.

I wanted to write a post about feminists, about how no one wants to be one, but then I thought, “No, Abby. More importantly, no one wants to read that.” So, I will keep it to myself. (You’re welcome.)

Guion said the other night at dinner that he wants the Internet to be a nicer place. He noted that nothing is worth posting unless it is a meme, preferably a sarcastic meme, or a jab at someone, preferably a famous someone. The Internet is all snark and no sincerity. At least, that is what Social Media has wrought. Heaven forbid I contribute to that snarky, pointless vortex, but I do. Every day. What’s the solution? How do we fix it? Get off the Internet. Take one’s dog for a walk and wait for seemingly endless minutes while she sniffs every sixth blade of grass. This, I have found, is the only solution to the Internet’s bad attitude.

I started three new books last night, each one quite different from the next: Binocular Vision, collected stories of Edith Pearlman; The Right-Hand Shore, by Christopher Tilghman, who runs Guion’s creative writing program at UVA; and The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Booker Prize. I liked noting how differently they all started their books.

On the subway Sophie recited the list of stations like a poem.

— “Inbound,” Binocular Vision

We see Miss Mary Bayly and her distant and much younger cousin Mr. Edward Mason sitting on the porch of the Mansion House on her ancestral farm, Mason’s Retreat.

The Right-Hand Shore

I remember, in no particular order:

  • a shiny inner wrist;
  • steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
  • gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
  • a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
  • another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
  • bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

The Sense of an Ending

All possess very disparate styles and priorities, but so far, I’m enjoying each one.

I have thought: I will always be reading and I will never finish my to-read list. I will die not having read everything I wanted to, even if I read 100 books a year for the rest of my life. The other day, I whittled my to-read list down to about 156 books, down from about 270. But I keep adding more and the count is gradually creeping up. (I need some solid nonfiction recommendations, by the way. Mind-broadening books.) Some time, I’d like to discuss the troubling note of xenophobia that has crept into my reading preferences, but that’s a different boring topic for a different boring blog post.