Distraction and connectivity: the unexamined life

 

Unplugged - no computer, no internet, possible?

Unplugged – no computer, no internet, possible? (Photo credit: photosteve101)

I was reading the New Yorker and found an article that resonated with me, about the value of boredom vs. distraction (Only Disconnect by Eugeny Morozov).

It was an interesting discussion of the work of different scholars from the early 20th century to the modern-day about the perils of distraction in urban life; a summary of Dave Egger’s latest fiction, The Circle, which is about a cult-like technology giant that erodes privacy and a short review of three nonfiction books that discuss the impact of digital technology on the issues of attention and distraction. (The Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushkoff; The Distraction Addiction, by Alex Soonjug-Kim Pang and Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, by Malcolm McCullough.)

Morozov’s main point is that creating the kind of society we want to live in is a political act, and compares it to the anti-noise lobby of the early twentieth century. If we do not want to be bombarded with smart technology at every step, we should advocate for ‘quiet’ spaces, in our homes and in our towns. He argues that we should not treat boredom and distraction as being at odds with one another, they can be reconciled by the considered and appropriate designation of space for one or the other. He discriminates between healthy boredom and “mediated” boredom, arguing that connectivity and digital distractions do not actually resolve boredom; we have simply lost the ability to recognize we are still bored when we are being bombarded with visuals and audio clips. He quotes Siegfried Kracauer, who championed “radical boredom” for individuals to feel wholly human and present. Kracauer’s essay (published in Zeitung in the 1920′s) extols the virtue of certain activities such as dance and travel to get us closer to “authentic rapture within the inauthentic domain.”

I did not agree with everything in Morozov’s essay; he’s right about “mediated boredom”, but he is dismissive about the role neuroscience plays in modern distraction– I think it is important to note the physiological process going on when digital links and page tabs light up the ephemeral pleasure-reward circuit of our brains. Surely that helps to explain why we willingly stay in the lab-rat mazes of cyberspace for so long and so often (checking our smart phones over 150 times a day on average). Full disclosure: I visited Facebook three times already today.

Morozov suggests that diverse experiences might help us break the hold that connectivity has on us, but he does not go beyond Kracauer’s suggestion of travel and dance. I would like that thought developed further. Why those activities and why not others? Writing? Painting? Gardening? What is the solution to hyper connectivity in a world where we can take our smart phones everywhere we go and check our computers to learn how to go about many of our favorite hobbies? If you think I’m exaggerating, you should have been there when the college guide laughed at me, when I toured a university library recently and asked where the books were. Should we pursue body-centered and multi-sensory experiences to resist the pull of the digital world, or is the cure simply any activity that pushes away the demands of other drains on our attention and allows us to think? Morozov himself locks up his phone in a safe for a certain time every day.

I do like Morozov’s idea that we must redetermine our relationship to time, as well as to space and cognition, to avoid the tyranny of the constant “now”. Unlike the Zen philosophy of being in the moment, our slavish devotion to “breaking news” and “latest trends” and “real-time” actually disconnect us from history, from a perspective of our place in relationship to the past.

I think these questions are worth considering, since we are hurtling towards a fully-digitized life experience at break-neck speed; we are already archivers of our own experience for the consumption of others in our social networking sites. I am not a Luddite, nor elitist, but I find it disconcerting that we don’t often have time to stop and think, particularly as regards the role digital technology has in shaping our modern life and whether or not we could or should do things differently.

Only a few thinkers are charting the way for us, and unfortunately they do not make the wide ripples that a mainstream sociologist, like Malcolm Gladwell might. Jaron Lanier‘s You are not a Gadget is remarkable in its breakdown of the digital revolution on middle-class economics and how we all, as consumers whose lives are being affected by digital technology, must advocate for the society we really want, before it is determined for us. I have not read Who Owns the Future, but that is the next book on my reading list.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I would not go that far, but I would certainly recommend that we examine this life and think about how we really want to live.

 

 

 

The last word: learning from your readers

I had another book club for A Deconstructed Heart and had a delightful afternoon with a great group of women. It always surprises me how different readers can interpret my book differently and come to wonderfully opposing points of view about the same characters. The whole experience was an interesting exchange, where I learned as much as I shared.

I was honored to be asked to name some of my favorite fiction (not my own) and to have those titles written down for future reference by one or two of the attendees. There’s nothing I love more than to share my love of really good writing, and I steered the reader towards Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall and David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

I told the group how much I personally don’t typically get into book clubs since I love to follow the meanderings of my own inclination (although I could make the Desi Lit Book Club an exception). One attendee told me how she loves book clubs because she would never normally pick up some of the books otherwise, and she loves to find the unexpected, to be shown a new perspective, and I realized what a great attitude that evinces. May we always be open to learning something new and having the humility to allow someone else to show us the way. This person is a remarkable example of living well, and the key clearly lies in her desire to always be open to new knowledge.

I was also asked what I learned from the process of writing my book and, until that moment, I had not reflected on what the act of writing had taught me. I realized how much I learned to appreciate my parents’ sacrifice to build a life for our family in England, and that the lesson was a gift. We take our existence and the facts of our upbringing for granted, and rarely acknowledge that there was a time and reality before us for our parents. Writing my book brought me to the understanding of just how much my parents’ immigrant generation had to let go, in order to give me the best chance in life. I’m glad I took the time to reflect on that sacrifice while I can still talk to my elders, and sharing my book with them has been deeply gratifying.

All in all, it was a really charming event and an afternoon I’ll remember fondly. Writing is a solitary act of arrogance, an omnipotent shaping of reality by the impulses of imagination. Readers make the act humane once more, through conversation, connection and communion with the book and with one another. It was a privilege to attend the process–a humbling and enlightening experience, a breaking of intellectual bread with other lively and insightful minds.

 

Reading one another: the insights of literary fiction

If you’ve ever been puzzled at the success of the latest “it” book and wondered what all the fuss is about or been saddened that no-one you know is as excited about the latest Peter Carey book as you are, you may be rattling about like a solitary dried pea in the lonely world of literary fiction love. It’s cold there, but still gratifying. You can always tell yourself that you are one of the cool kids. Well, the other day, I found another consolation for loving literary fiction. According to a recent study by two scholars at the New School for Social Research, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, the complexities and ambiguities of literary fiction make readers better able to guess at the motivations, emotions and beliefs of the people around them. The study revealed that this benefit does not come with reading popular fiction, given its reliance on stereotypical and uncomplicated characters. Another study reveals that literary fiction strengthens the reader’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, a factor that allows one to think creatively and absorb contradictory ideas at the same time.

I have a profound admiration for scientists, and invite you to take a minute to read both articles about the respective studies, to dip into the world of ‘knowing’ and ‘quantifying’, before you sink your nose back into that book and are back to wandering (and wondering) once more.

Salon: Jonathan Franzen can help you read people.

Pacific Standard: Reading literature opens minds.

 

Getting the story: the risks of war reporting

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session i...

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session in Huambo, Angola in 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I write fiction and only fiction. Despite a short, inglorious spate as a newspaper intern in my teen years, covering low-level court cases, I live in the decidedly safe world of my imagination. (I will get back to that internship later.) I am privileged to toy with words as if they are play-dough, stretching and moulding the reality I see fit to create for my stories.

I have tremendous respect for those other purveyors of words: journalists who speak truth to power, who use column inches to uncover crime and highlight injustice. I have a particular admiration of war correspondents, who cover the truth of war at great personal risk, in situations where few of us would choose to go, to shed light on atrocities that governments, paramilitary groups and warlords would prefer to keep hidden.

As an admirer of courage that I do not have, I have long wondered at the dedication of these war correspondents and photojournalists. I was crushed to hear about the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. The words and images they brought back in their reports allowed people like me to get a glimpse into the reality of the all too-many conflicts that scar the surface of this earth. The words they delivered under fire were clear, sharp and ringing with hard truth, expensive in blood, fear and material resources. These are tremendous stakes.

The price of war reporting by veteran correspondents and freelancers is addressed thoughtfully in a GQ article by Ed Caesar. It’s about time we ask the questions about how we can better protect those who go into the heart of darkness to tell stories that need telling. There are many shoddy journalists out there–the profession is as tainted as any other–but the world is better for individuals like Colvin and Hetherington (and many others who are nameless) who went looking for the story we needed to read and lost their lives in the process.

I hope you read the article; it’s worth every minute of your time: we can touch our smart phones and read an online newspaper article from a war correspondent in a few seconds, thinking that our free access to the news renders it of minimal value. It is not. It has come at a tremendous price.

As for the newspaper internship I held for a few weeks one summer so long ago… I was mentored by a kind young man who was patient and encouraging as I nervously typed my first clumsy columns for the local newspaper back in the 80′s. His name was Stephen Farrell… the Stephen Farrell who later went on to become a Middle East correspondent for The Times and The New York Times and was kidnapped twice, once in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He is safe and well, thankfully, and still dedicated to his profession.

Reframing the question of art

self-referential art

self-referential art (Photo credit: jasoneppink)

There is an interesting blog on Tumblr called Great Art in Ugly Rooms. The concept is exactly that: taking famous works of fine art and placing them in banal settings, without the reverence and dedicated space that an art museum normally provides these works. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I find the blog compelling, perhaps because as a teenager I had my own small postcards of some of these works taped to the walls of my bedroom–no doubt a room ugly enough to fit the criteria of this project. 

I started to wonder if there is a snobbery at work here: do not ugly (perhaps simple, or, dare I say it, poor) spaces not deserve fine art? Is this a joke, perhaps in the mean-spirited way of the blog that shows photographs of people and how they are dressed when shopping at Walmart? I thought of how Mark Wallinger, among other artists, was commissioned to create art embedded for the Art in the Underground project in London and what a wonderful concept to bring fine art into everyday spaces to be viewed by all. I do question the “ugliness” of some of the rooms in the Tumblr blog. Ugliness is a very subjective term, and oftentimes one person’s standards of ugliness as regards a room or home may be determined by the size of his/her income.

However, I don’t think that there is an intentional classist impulse here in Art in Ugly Rooms. Art is a conversation, and sometimes the conversation is the connection between viewer and viewed in the pristine environment of a museum (which is however, not a vacuum, given that much thought is always given to lighting, flow, seating and arrangements of a collection). However, in Art in Ugly Rooms, the conversation between art and its setting is amped up. It brings into question, which pieces still look like fine art when the hushed atmosphere of an art gallery is replaced by a utilitarian room in a domestic space? Or a public restroom? Which pieces seem to belong in their new home, sometimes to the point of being hard to spot? Does the setting remove some of the veneer from the fine art label and would only a true art afficionado see its value in this setting? Or is the art devalued by the grime and grit of real life? Surely we should not have to elevate and isolate art to appreciate it? Great Art in Ugly Rooms is uncomfortably provocative in making us think about what we value and why.

There is also some humor here in the unexpected (a familiar trope of comedy) by juxtaposing fine art in an unfamiliar setting: the urban artist Banksy being showcased in your average little girl’s room; the McLaughlin posited as hotel art; the metallic Jeff Koons metallic bunny standing in kitchen made entirely of traditional oak. This project subverts the impulses of the artist. While many an artist has operated outside of the gallery space to showcase their work, not many have seen their art framed by such mundane/hostile environments. It is one thing to drape the trees of Central Park with orange fabric and make a gorgeous setting even more gorgeous. It’s another to see your art grace the walls of a urinal; I’m doubtful that Matisse would have been game for this project if he was still alive. The Francis Bacon works are extra disturbing in their–presumably–suburban context. Now I see how odd the screaming pontiff postcard I bought at the Tate as a teen must have looked pinned onto the apple-shaped corkboard in my bedroom.

Great Art in Ugly Rooms is an interesting medium for re-evaluating the eliteness of the art world and how culture and money are inextricably linked. The outlaw art of graffiti is perhaps the best bridge between art and the masses, a fact that favored street artists like Banksy capitalize on. However, many people can get no more than a glimpse of great art in trips to galleries; ugly rooms are frequently the only setting in which they get a chance to savor it.

Learning by listening: the book club experience

Last night, I had the honor of joining the Chicago chapter of the DesiLit Book Club to discuss A Deconstructed Heart. It is an insightful group that meets monthly at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, Chicago, to discuss literature by Desi authors from the diaspora. There was plenty of insight, fair criticism and kind praise of my book and I felt that the experience provided the checks and balances that are so valuable to an author. It is a privilege to have your work fairly dissected by an informed group of readers, and a gift to listen as they share their connections to your writing. I look forward to the opportunity to meet this engaging group of readers again.

If you live in the Chicago area and love the work of South Asian writers from across the world, do drop into the most charming book store imaginable, the Book Cellar, when the DesiLit Book Club meets. To find their schedule, click here. If you don’t live close by, you can follow their reading list, and remain informed of what’s happening in the South Asian literary scene.

 

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In her own words

I was browsing Slate today, and read a fascinating excerpt of Helen Keller’s 1933 open letter to German students who were planning to burn books they considered “un-German.” I did not know much about Keller’s political activism, and the letter was that proverbial window to the past, one that had been thrown open, letting in a forceful and refreshing breeze. Her convictions fairly jump off the page: she tells the students “Do not imagine that your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His judgment upon you.” “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”

 

I was thinking it was interesting that the Helen Keller I had heard about was the sanctified version, the one where she bravely rose up against her disability and overcame it through sheer persistence. The Herculean task of learning to communicate as a deaf and blind person in those days would be achievement enough for one lifetime. However, without taking anything away from that almighty struggle, a quick glance on the internet will reveal how much more she achieved, and the other missions for which she bravely fought (Keller was an early supporter of the NAACP, took a stand against poverty and advocated for the availability of free birth control.)

 

English: Helen Keller. Français : Helen Keller.

English: Helen Keller. Français : Helen Keller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The fact that I was unaware of Keller’s activism is no doubt the fault of my own lack of curiosity. But perhaps there is another reason: I had not heard of those other achievements because Keller was a woman, and the story of a woman overcoming a disability is a less threatening narrative than of one who ruffles feathers with her opinions and attempts to effect change. So much vitriol comes the way of the outspoken woman. In Keller’s lifetime, one newspaper columnist who had once lauded her bravery in triumphing over her blindness attacked her political opinions as consisting of “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”

 

I am grateful to have read her letter and hear her voice resonating from eighty years ago, coming down so clearly on the right side of history on this issue and many others. I am grateful, also to have a reminder, from Keller herself and from the example of her life, that there is no excuse for intellectual laziness. We must question, investigate and think for ourselves, no matter who is telling the story and controlling the narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

Metrics and meaning: how do you measure success?

My giveaway closed on Sunday after one month with 676 people requesting A Deconstructed Heart. I did not have time to really promote the giveaway, so I’m very pleased with the results. I also saw a large increase in the number of people putting my title on their to-read shelf; if even a small number of them mosey on over to give my book a second look, I will be happy indeed.

I started to think about what constitutes success in the modest aspirations of a self-published author. I have not written a Dan Brown page-turner, or a dystopian novel that channels the zeitgeist of a generation, or a magical series that delights adults and children alike. There will be no tsunami of sales or selection to Oprah’s Book Club. There will only be small conversations about my book taking place in disparate places, a flowering and fading in different parts of the country (and sometimes, different parts of the world) as someone new bends back the cover of my book–or clicks on the title page in their Kindle–for the first time. That is a limited but gratifying marker of success.

Revenue from sales is a wonderful validation, but it does not necessarily quantify an author’s achievement–just ask Dave Eggers, who gave an honest and rather disheartening breakdown of his income from sales of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a New York Times bestseller, in the preface. Yet, his was definitely the “it” book for a while and launched him in the publishing world with a bang. 

Reviews, as I have mentioned before in previous posts, tell authors that they are doing something right. Personally, I am greedy for these, especially for the feedback that makes me feel as if the reader “got it,” and perhaps, even more, when she or he sheds new light on my writing for me. It is a gift to be read by a reader who is engaged, thoughtful and passionate. That reader is someone with whom I would love to share every book that means something to me. I am honored that A Deconstructed Heart has been chosen for three book clubs next month (two in Illinois and one in Canada), and I am very excited to attend one in person: the DesiLit Book Club at The Book Cellar in Chicago on June 3.

There is also quantifiable success evidenced in the metrics for my work–the numbers continue to grow at a modest rate: sales, reviews (Amazon & Goodreads), blog appearances, and selections to Goodreads shelves (380 to-date for A Deconstructed Heart).

I am delighted to be where I am today with my book and short stories, but I keep turning over the question of when it is that I will feel that I have achieved success with my work. Yet, I must realize that I am always moving the goal posts: by continually sharing my writing with more readers and reviewers in every way I can, there is no limit or end point to the life of my book. This, too, is success: a victory over the tendency in me to rest on my laurels (a wonderful euphemism, that).

I think Flaubert hit it on the head, when he noted that, above all, success is self-mastery : “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.

Onward.

Shifting sands

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes (Photo credit: David Stanley)

I’ve been away from my blog for a few weeks, startled by a recent change in the landscape that surrounds me. I’ve been reflecting on the nature of tragedy, both on the public shared level and in the private space, and I found that I was short of words to share with you via my blog, or with myself, in the stories I have been spinning.

Writing is a healing tool, but I find it is more powerful when employed at a distance, after allowing oneself to live in the raw moment. It is essential to blunder, to understand that we do not have control of the overarching narrative that is our own life, before we attempt to shape and mold an interpretation of existence that pleases us in our stories. For myself at least, anything else would be an attempt to escape feeling, and that strategy always comes back to bite me.

I have been affectionately accused of being cruel to my characters in The Purana Qila Stories, by throwing obstacles in the path of their happiness. If I picked up the thread of my tales now, I would be tempted to give my good (fictional) friends the happy endings they deserve, but my writing would probably be unsound and dishonest. I believe in the exhortation of Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

For now, I will content myself with the true sentences crafted by other authors and the distilled, clear truth of poetry, none more so than the haiku. Here’s one from the master, Basho:

Now the swinging bridge

is quieted

with creepers…

Like our tendrilled life

Giving it away

I have taken a little time out of blogging over the past two weeks, but I have been working hard to get the word out about my books in different venues.

I’m currently running a giveaway for A Deconstructed Heart on Goodreads. It is a great way to drive up exposure for authors. So far, 173 people have signed up and the majority of them have added A Deconstructed Heart to their to-read lists, and I’m only in the 5th day of a month-long drive. I will be sending out two signed copies to the winners in either the UK or the US in mid-May.

It’s my first giveaway and I have to say I am enjoying the process. I did my research and learned some valuable tips before I waded in: I started my giveaway a few days after enrolling my book to take advantage of a surge of interest on the first day of the giveaway. I made sure my start and end dates did not coincide with the end of the month/national holidays. I emphasized that the copies would be autographed with my chicken scratch (because apparently that is desirable.)

I’m also continuing to give out copies to gather reviews: in the next day or so, I will send a few copies of my book to a nascent book club in Canada for the Masala Mommas blog. Last week I sent a copy to the Printers Row Journal, the Books section of the Chicago Tribune, for review. Fingers crossed on both counts.

In the meantime, my book has been chosen for two book clubs in the next few months. I feel very honored to be invited to provoke and/or participate in the conversations about A Deconstructed Heart, and I hope to come away having learned something new about it from different readers’ perspectives.

My heart is telling me to lose myself in a story again, however, and I’m beginning to feel writer’s withdrawal. I feel good about what I’ve been able to do in the last few weeks, but my first love is calling. I have three more stories in mind for The Purana Qila Stories, and then I will take a deep breath and explore options for another novel. I can’t wait.