Posts Tagged 'Books'

The Dog-Eared End of Summer

photo by wildpianist

SEOUL — TODAY WAS THE FIRST day we kept the windows of our apartment open for longer than 20 minutes. In months past, the air has been so swamp-like and offending that inviting it into our tiny space has brought only sweat and noise. But a holiday weekend and a drizzling rain have purged this city’s breath. It is quieter, clearer; cool and fresh. Swatches of blue are dabbed in patches above foggy distant peaks. Maybe, just maybe, fall is coming.

It is no doubt obvious to a handful of faithful readers that my bid to rise daily at five AM and bang out a post has, so far, failed. I seem incapable of adhering to such a schedule, and working the night shift more frequently lately has not helped. Thursday night I finished up my tasks around 1 AM  (along with a can of Cass and an order of ddukbokki) and then proceeded to flit through a wasteland of late-nite television. Dramas from four years ago. Old American movies. I fell asleep.

Friday my wife and I spent the majority of the day reading in bed. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to plop down in front of a glowing screen. The feel of the book’s pages and the smell of pulp and ink cradled me in a world far from wires and deadlines. A good novel is like a journey gone right: both wrench us from the humdrum perspective of the daily grind, and leave us standing with a subtly fresh perspective on life. We take something with us. We leave something behind.

Symbolically, the book that I’ve just finished will be passed onto another friend living here, an East Coast native who is now Seattle-bound. If all goes according to plan, he should then pass it back to its original owner — completing a literary cycle formed of happy accident — in time for its pages to taste the Northwest winter.

Deep Reading, Deep Travel: Our Dying Print Culture and What It Means to Wanderers

photo by feuillu

NICHOLAS CARR IS WORRIED that his mind is going — or at least, that the capacity for concentration he once possessed is slowly evaporating. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Carr expresses legitimate concern that Google, and the medium of the Internet in general, is drastically altering the way we think. The fragmented nature of information on the web and the high potential for distraction means we now skim more than we read, he observes, gorging ourselves on information that we rarely take time to digest:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The result, argues Carr, is that we are losing are ability to analyze and arrive at insight while reading. While this new trend in thought is disturbing (if not surprising) in and of itself, the picture becomes even more frightful when the effects are extrapolated into other life experiences — like, say, traveling to another country.

The fear here is not that travelers will actually want to experience a country in bite-size chunks, but that we may be unwittingly yielding our ability for deep travel; our sensitivity to feeling lost, alive and lucid. If we keep heading in this direction, there is the danger that after touching down in a new place we will glean what we assume is its meaning and value, and then simply move on.

As my own thoroughly-Googled mind becomes trained to decode one chunk of information after the other, I’ve noticed that slowing down and appreciating where I am seems to be getting harder — no matter how stunning my surroundings may be. Tuesday night, as I sat along banks of the Han river looking towards the lights of northern Seoul, my thoughts continued to flutter. I felt unable to reflect or settle in the moment, without first making a considerable effort to breathe and meditate….and even then my concentration was fuzzy.

Obviously, as print culture fades the world over, there is a more tangible risk — the demise of the independent bookstore. These shops, once venues for mingling intellectuals and quiet gateways for travelers seeking a dose of local flavor, are rapidly disappearing due to a combination of free content available on the Internet and the dominance of stores like Borders. Monocle recently reported that even in Beirut, small booksellers are struggling as massive chains swallow the market.

It would seem then that taking the time to unplug and read a book is not so much of a luxury as a necessary act of self-preservation. We owe it to ourselves to reconnect with our own thoughts, and to not allow the deeper meanings of our experience to slip away due to dulled senses.

Edited June 26, 2008

Boycott Lonely Planet for Burma?

THE TRADE UNION CONGRESS has called for a boycott of all Lonely Planet travel guides until the publisher pulls their Burma edition from the shelves, saying that the country’s tourism trade only filters more money into the hands of a brutal regime. The TUC has posted an online petition, though the BBC, which now owns Lonely Planet, has already issued a statement saying they have decided not to comply.

The issue draws a fine line between ethics and freedom of information, though in reality there’s certainly some overlap. According to a recent BBC news report, the Corporation has said of its Burma edition: “It provides information and lets readers decide for themselves.”

At the front of the volume, there is a clear list of pros and cons.

Its reasons not to go include:

  • Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opposes tourism
  • The military government uses forced labour
  • International tourism seen as ‘stamp of approval’
  • Money from tourism goes to the military government

Reasons to go are:

  • Tourism one of few areas to which locals have access
  • Carefully targeted spending reaches individuals in need
  • Locals have told travel guide authors they are in favour
  • Abuses less likely in areas frequented by foreigners

That LP provides travelers with this list may be ironic. If you’ve bought the book, you’ve likely already made the choice and the guide will certainly enable that decision. But denying people access to this information doesn’t seem right either; if people are going to Burma, it’s better that they go armed with the right information. While the TUC’s argument certainly has veracity, its reasoning is somewhat analogous to the conservative claim that taking away condoms will stop teenagers from having sex — it won’t, it will just make it more dangerous.

It’s also worth noting that the most recent version of LP’s guide to Burma was published in 2005, it its ninth edition. The 2007 September protests and ensuing crackdowns may have been a visceral reminder of the terrible nature of Burmese junta, but the country has been a police state since 1962 — this boycott, if it had merit, would seem long overdue.

Photo: marcia reads the lonely planet, by Ed Fladung.

The Miles on my Traveling Shoes

WHENEVER I THINK about all the miles my shoes have seen, and about all the places to which they have carried me, I am reminded of a book that I keep meaning to read – Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. The opening paragraph alone is enough to stir a person’s soul out the door and to some far-off place:

The breezes of the West African night were intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness. Daylight was equally insistent, but much more bold and thoughtless. It dazzled, muddling the sight. It forced through my closed eyelids, bringing me up and out of a borrowed bed and into brand new streets.

I hope that these new pair will carry me even farther.

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