I’m currently reading a collection of essays by novelist Jonathan Franzen titled “How to Be Alone.” It was published in 2002 – a mere eleven years ago, but a time in which I think it was much easier to be alone. Interestingly enough, I recently came across the commencement speech that Jonathan Safran Foer (also an acclaimed author, and one I very much admire) recently gave at Middelbury College, titled “How Not to Be Alone.” (Note the ‘not.’) Then, last week in the New York Times, I came across the adapted essay of that speech (with the same title) that Foer just published as an op-ed piece.
I hope one of these two Jonathan’s picks up on this coincidence and casually mentions it to the other; I actually hope they’re already friends, because if they’re not, they should be, if only for the many J’s and F’s in their names, the titles of these two pieces of theirs, and just their writing talent in general.
This coincidence, these seemingly opposite titles, and the issues both Jonathans bring to light in their respective pieces have been on my mind all week. And so, in honor of the theme of this blog, this is what I’m wondering about today.
Teaching literature means that books been a big part of my everyday life lately. Over the past many months, I’ve thought a lot about access to books and how much we in the West take for granted the titles available at our fingertips, the fact that with a click of a button, Amazon will deliver any number of its thousands of books to our doorstep in a matter of hours. Most of the books I’ve taught while in Sri Lanka are not available on the island (I brought copies and had others shipped here through the US Embassy); even the best bookstores in Colombo are lacking. Amazon cannot get books (or anything else) to Sri Lanka easily or inexpensively. If my students cannot access a physical book or text they need for a class, they will turn to the Internet for a copy or sometimes be forced to settle for the book’s (free) Cliff Notes.
But my students see the value in books and are hungry for them. In class, my students are (for the most part) active participants and extremely focused. For better or worse, technology has not yet invaded the classrooms of Sri Lanka as it has in other countries.
In his recent commencement speech, Foer said: “In many ways, books are the opposite of the kinds of technologies most of us are becoming increasingly dependent on every day. They require solitary concentration, calm and attentive thought, as opposed to the desktops of our Macbooks, which inspire us to work with multiple screens open, multiple forms of media and communication competing against one another, our brain activity given over to deciding which links to pursue. Books celebrate ambiguity as an opportunity for revelation, as opposed to Google, which sees it as something to be overcome. Books require us to make rich and unlikely mental connections. … What are the best uses of our brains? What is the value of a literary mind, of thoughtfulness?”
Foer spoke these words to thousands of graduates who he felt needed to be reminded of the powerful role books play in our lives, probably because he realizes that for most of us, technology plays an even bigger role, and receives much more of our attention. I hear his words in the context I am living and teaching in today, which in some ways feels worlds away from the context I was in when I graduated from college. And when I hear these words today, I think to myself, How fortunate I am to be able to be part of the journeys my students are on in developing their literary minds; how fortunate that I get to watch and help them grapple with making rich mental connections as a result of books.
And that reminds me something I wrote on this blog a long time ago: that I read precisely because I crave those connections, the sentiments that orient me, the sentences that serve as my trail markers. Some people see magic in numbers, some in buildings, some in a pitcher’s perfect game. I see magic in words; in breathing, shifting, sentences. And in books. Above all else, I see it in books.
In his essay “Why Bother?” (more commonly known as “the Harper’s essay”), Franzen writes: “Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-changing evanescence; in their reach, toward print, for a way out of loneliness.” By finding solitude in the right places and through the right means — by being alone — we leave loneliness behind.
But then there’s Foer in his commencement speech speaking about how NOT to be alone. Which is it? Do we need to learn how to be alone or how to not be alone? At the intersection of books and technology, this theme is something we keep coming back to. And I think it’s here we understand that, alone or not alone, we must always find a way to be present.
“Each step forward in technological communication has made things more convenient,” Foer continues.”But each step has also made it easier, just a little bit easier, to avoid the emotional work of being present. To write ‘LOL’ rather than to actually laugh out loud; to send a crying emoji rather than actually crying; to convey information rather than humanity.”
I think as a society, we’ve become lazy with our emotions. Foer’s right: these days, it is remarkably easy to avoid doing the sometimes grueling, sometimes electrifying work of truly feeling; it is remarkably easy to put a Band-Aid on emotions we’d rather find a way to distract ourselves from. I think the important question here is not just why is this the case, but rather, why have we become so comfortable operating this way? Is shying away from genuine emotion, deep empathy, complete presence, and what Foer calls “human computing” becoming the norm? If so, what do we do about it?
Foer concludes: “I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or, but a question of balance that our lives – alone and together – depend on. … Everyone is always in need of something another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There’s no better use of one’s life than to respond to those needs. There’s as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require presence. All of them require a will to do the necessary hard work of human computing, of making the choice to engage, of struggling for language, of risking getting it wrong, of discarding shells and making the empathic leap. This is the work of being human. It can be messy and painful and almost impossibly difficult, but it is not something that we give; it is what we get in exchange for having to die. And it is beautiful.”