24 June 2011


HARD COPY BOOKS. Found in today's Huffington Post: In The Age Of Distraction, We Need One Thing More Than Ever: Books. Johann Hari eloquently describes our increasing obsession with electronic devices (e-book readers, smart phones, laptop computers, Tweeting and instant messaging and Facebooking), and how these playful, hypnotic toys limit our thinking. Here's a partial exerpt ~

"The book -- the physical paper book -- is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 percent this year alone. It's being chewed by the e-book. It's being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousands of Weapons of Mass Destruction that surround us all. It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.

" .... here's the function that the book -- the paper book that doesn't beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos at once -- does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As [David] Ulin puts it, 'Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction .... It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.'

"A book has a different relationship to time from a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now .... That's why we need books, and why I believe they will survive. Because most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration. Most humans don't just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book requires a sustained concentration it's hard to get anywhere else .... With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.

" .... T.S. Eliot called books 'the still point of the turning world.' He was right. It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to make living minds."

To which I add, bravo. Computers, movies, television (notably PBS), and perhaps someday e-books, occupy a useful place in my life. But nothing, nothing comes close to the intimacy, the engaged imagination, the feel and weight and smell of a good book. Losing oneself in a well-written novel, or an engaging biography, or an evocative work of history, is finding oneself again. Which is why the act of writing has become an interest bordering on obsession. Becoming the creator who eases others into the realms of their own imaginations -- what could be finer?

HAND HACKING. Want to play a musical instrument? Don't care to devote the time and concentration and discipline to practice all those tedious exercises and drills to develop your music reading skills and hand-eye coordination? Voila! Enter PossessedHand (thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link), a device which electrically stimulates the muscles in the forearm that move your fingers. With the aid of programming linked to musical scores, developers of the device claim that "it could help novice players by teaching them the correct finger movements."

Perhaps so, perhaps not. Over the years I've learned to play a number of musical instruments (with wildly varying degrees of expertise) -- French horn, keyboards, dulcimer, djembe, and classical guitar (see image below, click to enlarge). The latter instrument comes closest in appearance and function to the koto, the Japanese instrument for which PossessedHand was initially developed. Classical guitar requires intense focus and many hours of practice under the guidance of a master instructor to attain even modest skill. (My instructor, John Torrejon, was a student of Angel Romero, who in turn was a student of the legendary Andres Segovia.) As with reading a book, playing classical guitar requires imagination and focus over time, and provides physical, emotional, and spiritual rewards for which (in my never-to-be-humble opinion) electronic shortcuts will never substitute.

Koto players who have used the device describe the experience as "I felt like my body was being hacked." A musicologist points out that "there is a big difference between learning to play one song and being a competent musician." I would only add that for me, the satisfaction of being able to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (transcribed for classical guitar) or Francisco Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra would be cheapened by having electrodes teaching me the movements. It is that most versatile instrument of all, the human brain, which provides the tools for learning complex skill/art, and also provides the deepest satisfaction in the achievement attained. Can you imagine truly learning to drive a car if a computer were manipulating the steering wheel, the brake and accelerator and clutch pedals, the gear shift, and your hands were merely following the motions? I thought not.

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