Monday, December 3, 2012


Rituals are important. They anchor us, they give things importance whether we’re talking about a day like Halloween or the Fourth of July, an occasion like a wedding or birthday, or even the act of interacting with a book. This all came to me the other day when I played a poetry reading on YouTube rather than troubling myself to cross the room, open a drawer, take out a CD (that contains the same poetry reading) and place it in my PC. A click of the mouse was the only ritual needed.

This made me sort of sad. Why? I enjoyed hearing the poem of course, but in some way it felt as if I had rendered it amorphous and temporary, like fast food for the ear. Mouse click, heard it, off to the next thing, another mouse click. An element of intimacy had been lost, the buildup of fetching the thing, holding the CD case, seeing the cover art, feeling the disk, putting the disk into the machine that makes it play, knowing that I was interacting with something that speaks to me and thus has import in regards to my interests. Does this element of tangibility really matter? Isn’t it easier now that movies and songs and so many things can be plucked from the ether with just a few movements of the hand? It’s so incredibly convenient, and yet I’m sad or disappointed or worried.

My grandmother’s books about old New England houses are treasures to me. They are in a bookcase just to my right, not six feet away. But when I feel like looking at Colonial houses, I find myself using the mouse and the screen. What then becomes of the ritual of standing looking at the titles on the binding, selecting, feeling the weight, opening, smelling, hearing the hiss of a page, sitting with the thing in my hands, knowing that it’s something I have and own, that it’s not an electronically generated image that will be gone like a puff of smoke?

I wonder if our attention span is at risk now that we have so much so near all the time, so much we can pluck out of the air with a point and a click. Will this dehumanize us, devalue our connection to things, and will it turn all the things that we can make appear (as if by magic) just brief amusements that we glimpse before moving to the next thing? Will works of art and literature and music and film be reduced to flitting distractions rather than prized, treasured things we would handle lovingly, almost reverently, and keep on shelves or in drawers or cases?

 In some way, I think the ritual interaction with art is important. Does the delivery system or mode of presentation diminish a work, or does the act of touching and fetching and holding make the words of another seem more permanent, more real, more important to us? I think about these things in the age of dying books, when great works are consigned to an invisible realm until conjured, when the computer’s mouse moves more than the legs and my Nana’s books sit lonely on a shelf. 

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