Redeeming Words

I get roughly two hours a day to myself. One hundred and twenty obligation-free minutes that must be spent well. There are times when I do opt to watch a movie or a couple of episodes of a television show, but more often than not, I spend that precious time with a book (usually with a baseball game on in the background).

Everyone knows that reading is certainly better than binge watching or losing endless hours in front of a video game console, but not all reading material is created equal. And, in this day and age, how we read matters just as much as what. I’m not against popular fiction mind you; my bookshelves and my library card will attest to the fact that I’ve consumed my fair share. However, I read it for an altogether different reason than I do a solid piece of non-fiction or a “classic” work.

When I was an English major, I read with an attention to detail that would impress a ship-in-a-bottle enthusiast. Pen, highlighter, and page flags at the ready, I attacked a work of literature or critical theory ruthlessly. I highlighted passages, wrote reference notes in the margins and on the blank pages at the back. Basically, I did what Billy Collins said all students do, I beat it “with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to read in such a way these days. I want to experience the books I select and enjoy them for what they are, but I also don’t want to lose the ability to read critically and with attention to detail. I want to investigate language and understand how words work together.

Apparently, I’m in the minority.

According to this article by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, “skim reading” rather than “deep reading” is the new normal. In her research, she’s discovered that, “Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.”

I’ve noticed this cognitive decay happening with people I love. Those who once read books now spend all their free time staring at and swiping on iPads and phones, and over the years, their ability to concentrate has been whittled away. I don’t know if they’re even aware it’s happening, and, sadder still, I’m not sure they care.

Hundreds of studies have been done about the impact of technology, and most of the research isn’t good. According to doctors and researchers, we’re miserable and lonely. Our kids are pretty much wrecked and suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re always connected. We bemoan the lack of civility in our culture and the fact that thoughtful debate seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, yet we won’t put down the things that make us reactionary rather than thoughtful citizens.

When it comes to books, however, the research is all positive. Reading—especially fiction—allows us to take Atticus Finch’s advice and “climb inside [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.” Through reading, we gain empathy. Immersing ourselves in good books makes us smarter. It keeps our minds sharper and helps us be more relaxed.

For this reason, I read at least fifty books per year (both in hard copy and audiobook form when I’m driving), and ten of them must be classics. In addition to a dozen works of non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of graphic novels, I’ve read Invisible Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Raisin in the Sun, Candide, A Moveable Feast, and, most recently, Crime and Punishment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, and I’m looking forward to finishing a few more before year’s end. However, good as Dostoyevsky’s novel was, I could feel my mind wandering in parts of Crime and Punishment. I tuned out during a few long descriptive passages, and my eyes glazed over more than once when the story seemed to rewind and repeat itself. Twenty-five-year-old me wouldn’t have done that. That version of Jamie would have read it with laser precision (though with less joy, I think) and analyzed everything about the diction and syntax. She would have marked any instance of symbolism and every allegorical reference (of which there were many). Don’t take that to mean forty-year-old Jamie is a slouch though. Whenever I caught my eyeballs getting loose, I stopped. I re-read and re-focused. I kept a pen in my hand to underline sentences I enjoyed and make observations and predictions.

All the other moms at taekwondo practice (and their kids) may have spent 45 minutes on electronics, but I spent that time in St. Petersburg, Russia wrestling with some thorny moral questions. I’m not judging, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour scrolling social media, but I’ve made the decision to severely curtail my use of those platforms in order to make room for other things. Better things. More filling and rewarding things.

Reading Crime and Punishment expanded my knowledge of Russian history and geography. I even gained a little linguistical wisdom. Take the protagonist’s name for instance. Rodion comes from Rhodes, a Greek island, and Raskolnikov derives from the Russian raskolnik meaning “schismatic.” He is worthy of such a name, for he spends much of the story isolated and of broken because he is of two minds.

Spending time with characters like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is well worth the time and effort it takes to read their stories. Being inside his head as he wrestled with an ethical dilemma allowed me to experience it up close and personal too. I had to ask myself some hard questions about the value of human life and where I stand on punishment and redemption. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts on morality and the power of God’s grace.

And beyond that, there are the soaring phrases that I will keep with me always:

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
  • “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless.”

Spending an hour on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems so paltry, so insufficient when there are words like that out there to feast on. And yet, many of us choose technology instead. We use it to escape reality, to numb our brains to the world around us (especially when it’s unpleasant and we “can’t even”), but what we really need to do is lean in.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, John the Savage (so named because he’s grown up outside of the World State’s influence) says of mosquitos and flies, “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. [You] neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy….What you need…is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Like John, I want to know the world in all its beauty and savagery. I want to pay the cost required to live well, to know true pain as well as joy.

Near the end of her article, Maryanne Wolf states, “The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended ‘collateral damage’ of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

The last sentence makes it obvious why deep reading essential (and why our culture is the way it is today). I’ve studied far too many dystopian works to claim ignorance. They’ve shown me what a world without thought looks like, and it is a terrifying prospect. I don’t know if the predictions of Orwell, Huxley, Lewis, Atwood, Dick, Burgess, or Bradley will ever come true. I cannot tell if our world will one day resemble the ones they created as a warning. What I do know is that our minds cannot be spent frivolously. They are precious gifts we must defend at all costs against a world eager to consume them.

 

 

And The Sparks Fly Upward

Here’s a new piece of flash fiction I wrote for my writer’s group meeting this weekend. Let me know what you think!

***

“Attention! American Rail number 541 to St. Louis, Memphis, and Montgomery will be departing from track twenty! Passengers…”

Please board now, Lydia finished the oft-repeated announcement in sync with the voice. She’s been in the station long enough to hear it a half dozen times as well as those for trains heading to more exotic destinations. It didn’t matter; she wasn’t scheduled to take them; her trip was only home to New York.

Why Mama felt it necessary to send to Chicago for my trousseau is beyond me, Lydia thought. There are fine designers in the city, but to make it “just so”…

She barely remembered the city when she’d arrived that morning. After all, she could have been no older than eight when they left. Buildings that once loomed leviathan seemed paltry in comparison to the Empire State Building she watched growing taller each day. Still, she’d wandered the streets, hoping for a whiff of nostalgia.

Since her father’s textile factory had been relocated to New York and her family’s social status a rung higher, very few of Lydia’s decisions had been left up to her.

Even her impending marriage to one Phillip Yancey Langer, a man she’d met a handful of times and shared only fragments of polite conversation with, had been arranged. He wasn’t hard to look at, that was true, and he laughed more often than most. Still, in a few weeks she’d be exchanging vows with a stranger and sharing a bed with him for life!

Once it was settled, her mother had contacted her designer to create Lydia’s wedding dress and other clothing, and while everything from cut to color had been decided via telegram, the only thing that she couldn’t do was stand for the fitting herself.

That’s why Lydia, for once, had insisted on traveling to the city on her own—even refusing to go if her one demand wasn’t met. And after a great deal of railing, her father had stepped in and forced his wife to stand down.

Can’t the woman understand that I need to breathe somewhere she isn’t, just once? Lydia thought as she sat on the railway bench, her fingers nervously drumming on the suitcase she carried. Many of the outfits, including the wedding gown, needed last minute touches and would be mailed to New York within the week. Three, however, had been folded and packed in the dainty blue suitcase she carried.

It feels much heavier than something holding three dresses should, Lydia thought. Like a case of cannonballs.

Still, she would dutifully lug the prize home and don all three in turn to let her mother critique her product, analyzing it the same way her father might a new fabric off the loom.

“Attention! American Rail 194, non-stop to New York City, will be arriving on track twelve in ten minutes! All passengers please proceed to track twelve at this time!”

Oh, hell, Lydia thought. Already? I’ve been away fewer than twelve hours put together and still haven’t drawn a deep breath. It’s not enough!

She stood, grabbed the handle of the case, and tried to pick it up. But suddenly, it seemed too heavy to lift. She stood watching crowds of people getting on and off of trains, going places she’d never been and would likely never go, and felt utterly alone.  She felt her shoulders slump—a position she’d likely know forever after, in spirit if not in body.

No, she suddenly said to herself. I don’t have to. Not now. Not ever.

She snatched the suitcase from the bench and marched to the ticket booth.

“Excuse me, sir?” she asked the bespectacled man behind the counter. “What trains are leaving in the next ten minutes?”

He consulted the schedule at his elbow. “Well, miss. We have three going out now. One’s headed to the Carolinas, another for Texas, and a third to the Midwest. But don’t you already have a ticket…”

“Texas,” she exclaimed. “I want to exchange mine for a ticket to Texas.”

“Alright, miss,” he stammered, taken aback. “It stops in three cities—Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.”

“Dallas,” she said without hesitating. She handed over her ticket, paid the difference in fare from the money she’d stashed in her pocketbook, and thanked the man before turning to go towards platform three where her train was waiting.

It was only when the porter asked her for her bag that she realized she’d left it behind, and the thought made her smile.