Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Good That I Would, I Do Not

Alan Jacobs:

But then there are the people Nicholas Carr interviewed, and Carr himself: people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it — who can't get back, as Lucy Pevensie for a time can't get back to Narnia: what was an opening to another world is now the flat planked back of a wardrobe. They're the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it...I don't know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention — who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight — can learn how. But I'm confident that anyone who has ever had this facility can recover it: they just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like.

What do I want? What do I need? Why do I want it? What's in it for me? Thus did the Beastie Boys provide us with a rhythmic, rhyming conceptual framework for investigating those goals which remain unmet despite our professed intentions.

Jacobs talks earlier in the book about the different reasons why people read. Some people are after an experience of raptness, of being immersed in a book to the point of forgetting to eat dinner or go to bed on time. But some are not so much interested in reading books as in having read them — books are merely instrumental, a means by which to have improved one's character, raised one's I.Q., or boosted one's status. (Both tendencies can coexist in the same individual at different times, of course; I speak from experience.)

We understand this in other contexts. Some people genuinely enjoy exercise, and being fit is just a nice bonus for something they would do anyway. Some people would like to have exercised, and would like for other people to see them as fit, but aren't so keen on actually doing it. They like the idea of being healthy and slender, but they also like the experience of relaxing and indulging. The irresistible force of their vanity meets the immovable object of their laziness.

Being conflicted like that is, I would suggest, much more of a "natural" human state than being highly motivated and disciplined. We vacillate between different impulses all the time. We desire mutually exclusive things and avoid making a hard choice between them. We fear that what we really want isn't what we should want. Our tastes and appetites change over time. And we inevitably frame our choices in the most flattering way possible. No, really, I would have exercised if not for... Honestly, I love reading books, but these gadgets, see, they're rewired my brain...

We feel the trembling uncertainty along these fault lines in our character and hurriedly dash back to the safety of such comforting narratives. But it is precisely those cracks in the tectonic plates of our personality which invite us to explore a little deeper. What if you're not truly the person you thought you were, or the person you'd like to be? Would that be such a bad thing? What are you willing to sacrifice to get there, then?