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Miscellaneous rumination

Reading: The Noble Waste of Time

I’ve noticed throughout my adult life, and especially over the last few years, a sort of braggy immodesty when it comes to literature. Allusions to and discussions about reading in social media can often be boiled down to “look, I’m reading a book!”, the implication being that there is something inherently pure and virtuous about using the novel as your escapist vehicle, as opposed to the dirty television or the sordid internet. This is self-serving folly, and I hope to put it into perspective with a few observations.

When you look at it from a historical perspective, reading hasn’t always been perceived as an innately virtuous use of leisure time. As a matter of fact, until fairly recently the literary escapist was viewed by the societies of yesteryears much as the video game junkies of today were. One who spent his time lost in books instead of, say, plowing the field or learning to fight, or learning a trade, was a time-waster. Enthusiasts of fiction lacked ambition, they walked around with their heads in the clouds. Men who read too much were lacking in masculinity, and women who read too much had ideas above their station.

The argument I’d like to make is that the societal perception of the book-reader has shifted only relative to the newer methods of escapism we have been presented with. In the face of the television, the loud, brightly-colored box that pumped entertainment down your throat, the book suddenly seemed a lot more elegant. After a generation of parents watched their children gaze slack-jawed at a screen for hours on end for the first time in human history, a new vice was identified. As the TV zombie became something to discourage and avoid, the book-reader first fell by the wayside of the societal criticism machine, and in time nostalgia and the aforementioned relative elegance would transform it into the most noble leisure activity imaginable.

What’s interesting to me is speculating on where this will take us in the future. With the advent of the Internet, as wireless routers become household fixtures, will we see a generation longing for the communal experience of sitting on a couch and enjoying a single piece of mindless entertainment together? These sentiments are already popping up on the fringes of our common conversation. “When I was a kid, we used to sit and watch a movie together.” When I was in high school, my family used to watch Seinfeld every night. It was familiar and nice, and we all laughed at the same jokes at the same time.

The internet, and its new most prolific and ubiquitous vehicle, the smartphone (no spell check on the one-word smartphone, for the record) have taken this to a new extreme. Entertainment is now personal. The cell phone screen is big enough for one pair of eyes at a time, and if you want to share something you have plenty of internal tools to do so, in the mediums supported by said phone. With social media taking the cake as the most unproductive and catastrophically common extreme waste of time in the history of mankind, will societies of the future one day yearn for a time where we accessed Facebook on our browser and checked it for an hour every night, instead of continually throughout the day? Will the societies of the future reminisce fondly on a time when we enjoyed the rustic and common experience of holding a phone in our hands, instead of the damn brain-computer you see everyone zonking out on, on those rare occasions you turn yours off and look at your cohorts with your eyeballs? Is there an end to the relativism, a point where we draw the line and turn it all off? Time will tell. In the meantime, I just spent a half hour WRITING. With my own fingers, too. Beat that.

On the infinite minutiae of creative endeavors

One of my biggest sources of anxiety, part of the reason I am sitting here writing this right now, is the sheer volume of fascinating, unique life and energy and beauty that there is to be found in the world. I’ve always used music as an analogy to explain this sentiment, in the following way: I could spend the entire rest of my life listening to trap music, and only trap music. As a matter of fact, I could make trap music my sole form of entertainment input for the rest of my days- study it, analyze it, become intimately familiar with its genesis, offshoots, variants- and possibly, if I worked really hard, reach a satisfactory level of expertise on it. The problem is I don’t really like trap music that much. I like it, don’t get me wrong; I think Young Thug is an incredibly important piece of art in and of himself, but what it comes down to is that I only have one life, and only a very fixed amount of time in that life, and would I want to prioritize trap music over another genre? The answer, of course, is no- but the same could be said for any genre of music, and by extension, genre of literature, television, film. But it can be taken further than that.

Sometimes, at my current job, I find myself biking home from Midtown at 10 or 11 at night. Part of my preferred route takes me through Downtown Brooklyn, and past a lot of big hotels. Often on these rides, I see people smoking cigarettes outside of the hotels’ revolving doors. I had a thought on a ride once that I could probably do a whole photography project on these people. Spend my time skulking around Livingston street, just taking shots of people who think they’re alone, smoking a cigarette in a foreign city. The visual manifestation of what is probably a pretty vulnerable and reflective state. This would be interesting, and valuable, and meaningful. THIS- this one, extremely esoteric little piece of existence could be my art form. It could be how I shared the beauty I saw and felt with others. 

The (less than absurdity) of the idea became apparent to me pretty quickly as I fleshed it out. I feel like I am an artist because I experience the beauty of existence very intensely, and am compelled to do something to share that with others. Whether that’s out of a need for validation of my experience, or some sense of experiential altruism, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that this idea led me back to the same, tired thought process. Sure, I could shark around hotel districts late at night with my camera and probably a better lens, obsessing over these small, parallel moments a certain group of people experience. But what makes that a more valuable expenditure of my time than, say, writing this? Or making mustard? Or music? Or any other the other myriad of creative and less-creative endeavors I have picked up in an attempt to catch a glimpse of my white whale, True Productivity? 

I’m not too self-absorbed to take a step back and look at the bigger question inherent in all of this: that of what makes something “worth doing”. You can listen to trap music without becoming the Stephen Hawking of trap. You can appreciate something without becoming an expert on it. I understand that, intellectually. But when I see (or hear) something that I love, I want to know it on a deeper level than the immediate, superficial enjoyment of that thing. Maybe that’s a degradation of what art is supposed to be, but it is what it is. When something sparks my interest, it becomes my interest, and that road always ends at the same dead-end. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many days in a life. If indecision is a decision in and of itself, then I am the waste of potential that I feel. 

There are, of course, an abundance of questions that come up as a consequence of that thought process. Rather than delve deeper into the minutiae of my Internal Existential Artistic Crisis of Identity, which I will surely continue to do another time, I’d like to flesh out another question that seems like a natural successor to these musings: the question of consumption vs creation. This is a continuation of my earlier point about trap music. I am intensely interested in things. I could spend hours learning about a specific genre of music, or literature, or television, or film, or tributaries of rivers in New England. When it comes to art, does one need to choose between “consumer” and “creator”? I suppose not- the best artists have usually been both at once. But how does one find a balance between the two? Great music producers will listen to music and call it “research”. Great writers, I would imagine, read a lot. But what about the people who devote themselves to the study of the art of others? Is what they are doing similarly meaningful? Does their work have any inherent value of its own, any Truly Productive value? Perhaps it only has value if it is applied in the same field. For instance, if an expert on fantasy literature uses that knowledge to bang out the fantasy novel of the decade. But how often does that really happen? We know Tolkein was a scholar, but it is my understanding that he was driven by much more than a love for literature to write what he wrote. Perhaps if the expert consumer uses his knowledge to teach and share what he knows with others who are subsequently inspired and create their own works, that is a form of productivity. It’s indirect and convoluted, but what isn’t in this life.

It’s funny how this all always comes back to the same questions of what meaning is, how to achieve it, how to feel productive and whole and purposeful. These smaller thought experiments are just tributaries to the proverbial river of time, or life, or whatever you want to call it. But at least, for this half hour, I’ve been writing for myself. And for now, that feels just productive enough.