Pic: hats on display in a 28th Street shop window, no direct connection to this post
One thing with Kindles is that you get less of a sense of the literary landscape of a subway ride. On a recent commute I enjoyed seeing that a guy standing on the platform was reading a paperback called “Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State”. And, once on the train, that a woman near me was reading “Friends, Lovers, Chocolate”. With e-readers it is harder to see what people are reading. It’s one symptom of the easy-to-bemoan privatization-by-gadgetization of our lives.
Author and lecturer Douglas Bauer points to another potential consequence in his recent Writers’ Chronicle article, “Cather’s World and the Future of Narrative.” He had recently taught a course on Willa Cather’s novels and was surprised by the way his young students appreciated her use of detailed descriptions of nature to convey emotions. To what extent, he wondered, will new emerging writers, who have grown up spending much of their time plugged into headphones and looking at screens as they move about the pace, be willing and able to use descriptions of their environments in their writing? Will writing change significantly as a result?
He said that it’s too early to have seen effects in well-known writers’ work. I imagine good writers will continue to keep gleaning material from the physical environment even if they just use one eye to do it while the other’s drawn to a screen. Also, that whatever does go missing in terms of geographical presence is compensated by new forms of reflecting human experience (and the lack of it).
Cars are another form of disconnection from surroundings, more dated of course. The other day TM gave us a lift back from their place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. JNH was excited by the ride. “More drive, more drive,” he’d request whenever we stopped at traffic lights. On previous car journeys, he had either been ambivalent or bawling his head off, not used to the feeling of constraint. They had been few and far between, just taxi rides to the airport when we go to see our scattered family in the UK, San Francisco, Miami and Dominican Republic, and trips in the cars of relatives while there.
This time though was totally different. He looked out of the window and described what he saw, and kept up a babbling conversation of sorts with C and TM in the front seats. I too, even felt a slight nostalgic thrill at moving through neighborhoods so quickly, watching them glide past. Of course if we ever get a car the novelty for both of us would very quickly disappear. And notwithstanding the financial and environmental costs that would come with it there’s the human one. On a car journey, from when you leave the front door there’s no form of interaction with the people you pass on the streets. Except, that is, for the occasional screen-divided gesture shared with another driver.
On our pedestrian wanderings around Astoria there are multiple interactions. Walking home with JNH from his daycare the other day for example there was the graying woman who agreed she loved “those horses” when she saw JNH admiring a luminous farm-scene on the side of a supermarket; the huddle of men outside the Irish pub who had clearly been there most the afternoon joking that “I started drinking at that age” as JNH started trying to toddle inside; the lady who commented, “I remember that phase so well, enjoy it,” as he lingered for a long time examining one of those coin-operated machines with a dangling grabber you maneuver to try to get hold of a toy. (Yes, if we’re not in a hurry to get back, our evening return can take a long time – up to an hour for what in adult circumstances is an under 15 minute walk).
Each interaction like that in itself might not count for much, but taken together they build a sense of belonging and shared humanity that car journeys never can. Of course for many people dawdling just isn’t an option. Others might see that kind of passing interaction with strangers as a compelling reason to drive rather than not to. But right now I’m enjoying sensing the presence of the streets at walking pace.
The Psychogeography book I read recently quotes a fabulous critique of travel by Joris-Karl Huysaman. It’s from his 1884 novel À Rebours. The main character Des Esseintes plans to visit London, inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens. But he only gets as far as ordering a taxi and going to an English tavern in Paris before returning home, tired out. It dawns on him that the experience may have been more rewarding than the real thing.
"'Get up, man, and go,’ he kept telling himself, but these orders were no sooner given than countermanded. After all, what was the good of moving, when a fellow could travel so magnificently sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, and even cutlery, were all about him? What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments...
‘As it is, I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have thought of repudiating my old convictions, to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination, and to have believed like any ninny that it was necessary, interesting, and useful to travel abroad.’” [French original is available here: from the last two paras.]
I shared that quote with C who appreciated it greatly, as a regular critic of my and others’ globe-trotting tendencies.
That gets me thinking what it is about travel that appeals. Many things. There’s the way a new environment perks up the senses, the freeing knowledge that at a given time no-one you know knows where you are, the instinct of observation that comes with not belonging, an openness to the unexpected, and making tangible a place that previously only existed as a name, an idea, in your mind. Other than the last one though, all those conditions can be reproduced without travelling, in a location that is supposedly familiar. All the more so when that place is a city.