Monday, April 25, 2011

Milk & Meaning

Surf is such an appropriate word for the way we consume ideas on the Internet. It’s fast and smooth, and it stays on the surface. With a few notable exceptions, what I do on the Internet isn’t reading at all; it’s surfing and it’s skimming, as if meaning could be skimmed off the surface of text like cream from milk.

For a second there, I thought I’d come up with the metaphor of milk and meaning all on my own. But duh — we call it skimming for exactly that reason: we assume that meaning in a text acts like fat in milk, in both cases the best parts rising to the top for easy removal. In the case of skimming a text, you might miss an elegant flourish, a sense of style, and you might not enjoy it as much — but you still get the meaning.

But does meaning really rise to the surface? Can you miss the tone but still get the meaning?

Well, yes — of course you can. I don’t have to suffer through a food blogger’s life story to get her recipe for quick pickles, or read more than an article’s headline to learn that “Taliban Help Hundreds Escape via Prison Tunnel.” The pyramid structure of a newspaper article is designed for skimming: put the important stuff in the first paragraph, because most people won’t stick around for much more.

But after a while, digesting meaning this way makes me physically sick, as if pure ideas, detached from language, were empty calories. A few hours of surfing the Internet and I don’t even want to look at a text. When I read something slowly and carefully, I have a much better time. A good, close read makes me want to talk to people! Write things! Read more! Close reading can’t make us enjoy everything, but it can probably help us enjoy a lot more.

So am I saying that skimming allows you to access meaning, only you don’t enjoy it as much? Well, no, I don’t think I am. Because if you don’t enjoy something, you don't digest it well, and you probably can't extract as much meaning from it. Skimming is quick and light — you get ideas without texture. Slow reading lets you feel the grain of language, and, to push the digestion metaphor a little more, to let all your intestinal villi work their magic. If meaning happens where reader and writer touch, you almost have to enjoy a text to understand it. I like that: enjoyment as a mode of understanding.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Swallowing the Surface

Before I had ever thought about going into advertising, I worked at a think tank. It was cool and everything, but I knew I wasn’t enough of a political junkie for it to work out for the long term. As my boss said to me, I appreciate “the surfaces of things.” I care more about choosing the right word than choosing the right side.

So now I work in advertising. But my old boss’s words never quite rang true. I do love the surface — in fact, one of my favorite pieces of prose is Edward Abbey’s celebration of the surface in the introduction to Desert Solitaire:
It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surfaces of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

What else is there, indeed. But as for the pages that follow, I’m lukewarm. So much description of rock and sand and long days where nothing much happens — I’m a little bored by a lot of it. Could it be that I like talking about the surface more than I like the surface itself? That’s a mouthful — and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I truly love the surface, why is Desert Solitaire such a hard pill to swallow?

This thought crossed my mind again the other night, just as I was poised to give up on Nicholson Baker’s essay “Clip Art.” Two pages into his examination of fingernail clippers, I was longing for his festive backyard pornography, his meditations on women’s stockings, his tracing shower water into an open mouth. Not all surfaces are equal; I’d rather read about skin on skin than chrome on nail.

But I pushed on through the boredom, and I’m glad I did, because this silly little essay surfaces surprising meaning from a superfluous device. The fingernail clipper, it turns out, can be quite meaningful. It leaves behind a sharp edge that is perfectly suited to annotating texts when no pen is available. It’s not a practice I was familiar with, but according to Baker, it’s quite common:
Even with a closely clipped and manly thumbnail, the reader can and very often does, today in America, score a visible double line to mark an interesting passage, if it appears in a book that he is prevented for one reason or another from defacing.

And then I got to this, which changed everything:
Moreover, the pressure of the reader’s nail, deformed by its momentary trenchancy, against the tender hyponychial tissues it protects, creates a transient thumbwide pleasure that is, or can be, more than literary.

Talking about a thing has never seemed closer to the thing itself. Baker conjures the whole endeavor of reading in a gesture: the gentle, pleasing pressure of the surface of a text pressing up against the surface of a fingernail. And what a sensual pleasure it is, these two surfaces touching each other, imprinting each other. On the literal surface of the text, the literal and the figurative seem to collapse on one another. Baker isn’t talking about fingernails as a metaphor for something else — he’s talking about actual fingernails, and how physical pleasure commingles with literary pleasure to create meaning that is “more than literary.”

My middle school English teacher said that meaning isn’t in the reader or the text, but somewhere in between the two. I always pictured this “in-between” as a big empty space, a vacuum. But now I’m reimagining it as the collapsing of that space, as the place where two surfaces come together.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mad Libs & the Dimensions of Thought

A study from University College London published this week in Current Biology has discovered that there are actually differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. Specifically, liberals' brains tend to be bigger in the area that deals with processing complex ideas and situations, while conservatives' brains are bigger in the area that processes fear.
(via GOOD)

…The study was based on 90 "healthy young adults" who reported their political views on a scale of one to five from very liberal to very conservative, then agreed to have their brains scanned.
(via AFP)


They reported their political views on a scale of one to five? I have no idea where I’d put myself on that scale. It doesn’t even make sense to me.

We take the figure of the Political Spectrum for granted, but it's just that — a figure. And a one-dimensional one, at that. If your ideas differ from mine, they can only differ in two directions: left or right. But I think we need at least four dimensions to capture the complex nature of ideas. Opinions are slippery, malleable, and always in motion. Shine a light on them, and they change.

But when we try to squeeze these exquisite and subtle creatures into the blunt figure of the Political Spectrum, they shrink and wither. This is something we have to resist, because if we don't, it will change the way we think — for the worse. If you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if you’ve got a powerful metaphor that claims to represent viewpoint, everything looks dumbed down.

When I tell people I don’t identify as liberal or conservative — that I object to the very notion of such labels — they usually respond in one of two ways:

1. By conceding that no, labels are not perfect, but we need some common ground to discuss things, to compare and contrast.
2. By claiming that my failure to stake out a position is a copout.

Fine. But the notion of calling myself a liberal or a conservative fills me with disgust — a personal, not a political, disgust. It’s not that I reject certain tenets of these ideologies, it’s that I reject the oversimplification that permeates our thinking, our being. Even if it would make things easier. Even if it means being annoying.

My favorite people have the ability to surprise me. Their opinions on one issue don’t give away their whole body of thought like some domino-liberal or conservative whose beliefs always fall according to plan. These people demand time and attention and are forever slipping out of grasp just when you think you’ve got a hold of them. It’s frustrating and exhilarating and there are no shortcuts.

Remember Mad Libs? You feed a list of verbs, nouns, and adjectives to your friend, who fills in the blanks and reads you back a story of delightful non-sequiturs. Sentences seem to be heading one way, but then veer off unpredictably. Grammar is intact but the rhythm of language is distorted. We’re used to sentences gathering a certain momentum and taking off in predictable ways. But with Mad Libs, it’s impossible to know where a sentence will end up. It’s ridiculous, but in its best moments, it can create a resonant, meaningful ridiculousness.

Let’s treat people — let’s treat life — more like Mad Libs.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Just Say Yes.

I’ve always been told to just say no to smoking. That whatever fleeting pleasure a cigarette offers, it subtracts minutes from our lives, plants cancers in our lungs and mouths.

The one awful puff I took of my friend’s cigarette in middle school was enough of a deterrent for me; I’ve never been tempted to go back for more. As a kid, I’d watch my uncle enjoy a cigarette and wonder how many he had to suffer through until they started tasting good. Why would anyone do that, especially when cigarettes give you cancer? To look cool? I couldn’t think of any other explanation.

But a while back, I heard an interview on NPR that made me rethink my assumptions about smoking. It was with a guy who, though not a smoker himself, had written a book in defense of smoking. Smoking, he argued, was an adult pleasure, and all adult pleasures have an element of poison, of danger, of pain. The bitterness of coffee, the sting of alcohol, the tenderness of sex: these things are not just incidental but essential to enjoyment.

When we get older, our ideas of pleasure change. I remember sneaking a sip of my dad’s coffee, and feeling perfectly mystified at the strange world I was destined for where bitter black liquid tastes good, and where it was conceivable to enter an ice cream store and not order anything.

But when I was a little older, my dad would sip scotch and pour me a taste, and we’d argue and discuss the world in a way that only a New York lawyer Jew and his daughter can. Scotch started to taste good in that context. He’d share bits of wisdom with me like “with freedom comes responsibility,” and, come to think of it, you could say the same thing about adult pleasures. Scotch and sex are more demanding pleasures than popsicles and Polly Pocket. They require knowing the size of your own stomach, as Nietzsche said.

If you don’t pay proper attention to adult pleasures, they will hurt you. But the dark side of a thing needn’t be its refutation. We should teach our children to avoid risk, yes, but we should also teach them to use discretion, to savor. I think that method would go a long way in reducing smoking deaths — because the worst part about addiction is that you don’t enjoy your poison as much. You can’t taste nuance when you reach for something by rote.

So instead of a just say no campaign, why not a just say yes campaign? Say yes to enjoyment, say yes to your own limits. Smoke Well. Don't remove danger; heed it. Be present. Smoke a cigarette like you’re in yoga class. Inhale, taste the smoke as it dances down your throat, hold it in your lungs and enjoy its...well, I don’t know. I’m no smoker. But I can appreciate it from afar.