Last week Dan Blank posted an article I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It was about physical media.
His piece begins with an observation: Not long ago, people read physical books, magazines, and newspapers in all kinds of situations, such as when riding the subway; but today, it’s easier to open your phone, access the Web, and grab whatever you want to pay attention to. Just go to Spotify. Or YouTube. Whatever.
“How people read and listen and watch has evolved a lot in the past decade,” Dan observes.
That much is obvious. But then, being Dan Blank, he goes off on a different tack. He is not so much concerned with trends of media consumption as dictated by convenience or economics. Dan wants to know how our relationship with media in physical forms—old-fashioned formats, really—affects us in our inner, private existence as human beings.
“I’ve been thinking about how I can be more intentional in how I experience books, movies, and music,” Dan says. Is it just me, Dear Reader, or does this sound like a thought from outer space?
Only Dan Blank—who does indeed think deeply about such matters—could even formulate that sentence. He goes on to explain that, having eschewed traditional television in his household for many years, he is now setting up a TV room. “It feels old fashioned,” he says, but he’s buying “an immersive experience to lose myself in a movie. To close the shades, turn off the lights, close the door, turn the volume way up, and dive into a film.”
Well: That’s him, and I’m me.
But it got me wondering how I relate to media in my life. It wouldn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to figure out that Your New Favorite Writer is perhaps a bit . . . eccentric.
I like a physical book, hardbound or paperback. The ancients entrusted their writings to long, continuous scrolls of papyrus or other materials that had to be unwound with one hand while being rewound with the other. When some genius invented the codex, a stack of rectangular sheets bound along one edge, he or she introduced a device that has lasted ever since. With a codex, very like a modern book, you could easily flip back and forth. You could go back fifty pages to see whether the dagger was mentioned among the items the police found after the murder.
The modern world was born.
Since that time I have read quite a few books—learning from Peter Drucker, investigating with Dorothy Sayers, and taking the hard falls with Ross Macdonald. There is something about holding a book in my hands, flipping pages, that transports me to a new and exciting place.
With the advent of the mass market paperback, a book became something you could jam into the back pocket of your jeans, get on the bus, and pull out to re-enter the dream world.
When today’s reality (no, thanks) came along, I learned to download e-books and read them on my laptop. But I strongly prefer black ink on white paper, sandwiched between a pair of sturdy covers.
Now here is my shameful secret, Gentle Reader. Try not to condemn that which you may not understand. Black ink on white paper, or at least the facsimile of same on a laptop screen, is the ONLY way I like to receive information.
There’s something about my auditory and central nervous systems that makes it hard for me to absorb content by hearing or seeing. I have to READ it.
This is altogether unlike the stated preference of my high-toned friends who spurn the television news because the New York Times, you know, is so much more accurate and in-depth.
No. This is how it is: If my laptop shows me a TV news story that I can watch as a stream or read as text, I will choose the latter—even if the text is a verbatim transcript of the television clip. If there’s only a TV stream, unaccompanied by written text, I’ll find a different source that does have written text. As Heinlein’s famous Martian would say, I can grok it in its fullness only if it’s in print.
I remember, as a child and even as a young adult, going to see movies in the cinema and enjoying them greatly. It’s a long time since I’ve had that experience. If I want to have it now, I’ll turn on the TV and navigate my way to Turner Classic Movies. That’s because the films they make now are not only too loud, they go too fast for me to understand.
Partly that’s because of my hearing impairment, but that’s not the whole story.
No matter how fast people talk, I hear slow. I also see slow. I can’t follow the thread of a TV commercial because of the quick cuts. They can present an entire opera in thirty seconds, but I’ll be caught off guard when the fat lady sings.
These effects have increased as I age. It’s gotten to where there’s virtually no point in hearing or seeing anything.
Just give me a book and a quiet corner. I’ll be happy.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)