A vow to open a few more books
New Year’s resolutions and I make for poor company.
Like many reading this column, I have in the past made resolutions designed to correct some flaw in my character or my habits, which often are the same creature. I have rung in the new year vowing to lose weight, to give up drinking, to write more letters and emails to those I love, to keep my big mouth shut when the desire to offer advice wells up in my throat, to exercise more, to eat healthier foods, to pray more, in short, to write out and act upon some proposed change aimed at self-improvement.
And every year I have failed. Sometimes I stayed the course for a month or so, but more often than not I fell on my face before the first week was up. Resolutions, like liver and onions, just don’t sit well with me. One Lenten season, for example, one of my sons asked me if I had made any Lenten vows. “I have,” I said with a firm purpose of amendment. “I have resolved to complain less this year. I think I complain too much. I’m turning into a whiner. I have to say it’s been really difficult. I mean, I’m trying, but it’s tough not complaining.”
My son burst out laughing and pointed out that I was complaining about not complaining. Shot down once again. And this was on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season.
This year, however, I have adopted a new year’s resolution I hope I can keep. (I’m like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons when Lucy would encourage him every year to boot the football she was holding as a placekicker. Every year she yanked the ball away and poor Charlie crashed to the ground after missing the kick. Ah … hope springs eternal).
My resolution has to do with the time I spend online compared to the time I spend with a book in my hand.
Thirty years ago, no matter how busy I was, I always found time to read books. Sometimes a vacation allowed me to read for hours. Most often, however, I read in snatches, picking up the same book eight and 10 times a day, reading on a break from work, reading before bed, even reading at meals if I was alone.
But in the last 10 years I have opened books less and less, and opened my laptop more and more. Like many others, I go to my favorite news sites, I look at Facebook, I read emails. I frequently watch movies and television shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
I read and review books for The Smoky Mountain News, of course, and nearly all of them bring me pleasure. But come evening, which is when time allows me some freedom, I gravitate to the machine on my desk instead of to one of my bookshelves. In the past decade, I have particularly neglected older books, some of them classics, which I have wanted to read both for edification and entertainment. C.S. Lewis once wrote “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow oneself another new book until you have read an old book in between.” That advice, though wise, won’t work on my schedule, but my problem is that I hardly read any old books at all anymore. From my shelves or the library bookcases they sit there begging to be opened — Dostoevsky’s The Devils, for example, or Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization, which I have lugged around for 20 plus years — yet there I am on the laptop, doodling around with blogs and essays covering Donald Trump’s latest faux pas or the meaning of Prince Rupert’s drops.
Other than attempting to recapture my former zest for the printed word, I have another reason for wanting to cut back my time online. Many writers and researchers have analyzed the effects of the internet, television, and media in general on our thinking processes. Their conclusions, though mixed, reveal that jumping from site to site online, taking in a paragraph or two and then moving on, is diminishing our ability to concentrate. We have fallen victim to ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder.
Unlike children, however, we are the manufacturers of our own disease. In my own case, I have noted that I will often begin an interesting online article only to discover that it runs too long. I abandon it and move on. We see this same phenomenon in our political races, where candidates live and die by sound bites, tweets, and generalities. They realize that most of us no longer care for analysis or in-depth discussions.
So for this New Year I vow to read for instruction and pleasure some of the books I have neglected. I will continue to look for new work as well, but hope especially to take up some of the older books too, those volumes that have sat unopened for years on my shelves, books like The World’s Best Fairy Tales, Mary Johnson’s novels about the Civil War, and Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even make a dent in the Durants’ 11-volume Story of Civilization.