Economy, memory and inspiration

Economy issue of qarrtsiluniAsk a chef to name his favorite dish, and he’ll likely say, “Anything I don’t have to prepare myself.” If it’s his own recipe, though: “Wow! This tastes familiar, but it was never this good when I made it!”

That’s kind of been my reaction to reading the print edition of qarrtsiluni’s Economy issue, which I had almost nothing to do with this time, since Beth found an excellent volunteer proofreader, Brittany Larkin, to help her out (thanks, Brittany!). I did have a hand in ordering the contents, since Beth followed the order of the posts in the online issue, which the issue editors, Anna Dickie and Pamela Hart, had left up to me. I was also intimately familiar with the poems, essays, stories and images since I’m the one who sets the posts up for publication, edits the audio, and puts together the podcasts.

Still, it’s been a year since we serialized Economy online, so I was pleased to rediscover some things about the issue that had kind of slipped my mind. I’d forgotten, for example, how many Scottish contributors it had — no surprise since Anna is Scottish herself, but appropriate for the theme since Scots are, rightly or wrongly, associated with thriftiness. In order to keep the print version affordable, the interior images are all black-and-white, but it was still fun to see all six of artist Alec Finlay’s oatcakes in the form of famous lakes and islands gathered on the same page, even if they didn’t look quite as edible as they do in the full-color versions online.

laptop version of qarrtisluni's Economy issueI don’t own a proper laptop, let along a mobile device, e-reader, or tablet computer, so this was my first laptop experience with the issue — the first time I’ve been able to read it on my front porch. I’m in the camp of those who, like my friend John Miedema, believe that reading books is a fundamentally different experience from reading online, though it sounds as if the Kindle and some of the other new e-readers are blurring the distinction quite a bit.

This is actually one of the reasons we’re experimenting with print-on-demand versions of qarrtsiluni issues: we want to encourage deeper, more reflective reading. As publishers, we love making authors’ works accessible to anyone with a good internet connection, but we worry that, by serializing small bits of content on a daily basis, we are simply pandering to the average online reader’s short attention span and need for a regular fix. I do feel, however, that publishers can help mitigate the distracted nature of online reading by providing audio players alongside texts, as we do at qarrtsiluni. In fact, I think this is one of the web’s huge advantages for literary publishing, especially of poetry. So far, I haven’t seen any article on the slow reading movement (of which Miedema is an advocate) and/or review of Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, make this point — not even the very thorough Christian Science Monitor cover story, “Is tech rewiring our thinking?” (that’s the print title), which I had the privilege of reading in print form this morning, since my parents subscribe and pass it on to me.

But of course audio isn’t an option at too many magazines yet, so perhaps it doesn’t merit mention. The audio podcasting craze peaked around 2006, I think, right before YouTube took off. Now all the tech pundits seem to think that video is the online medium of the future and nothing else is worth talking about — but video is a lot more expensive to produce, and besides, the advent of television didn’t do away with radio, did it? I continue to feel that the combination of text and audio players on the same virtual page is a wonderful thing, even if not every author is the best interpreter of her own work. (Over at Linebreak, a literary magazine I admire, they post audio of a poet other than the author reading each poem, which is a pretty neat approach, too.)

I might not have remembered every nuance of every poem and story in the Economy issue, but to my surprise and amusement I did remember many of the poets’ voices, and heard them in my head as I read through the print edition. Of course, a Scottish accent is pretty memorable for a Yank like me, but I found I remembered the accents of many of the other poets too: Alex Cigale’s precise consonants, Tom Sheehan’s age-mellowed Boston accent, Eileen Tabios’ hilariously seductive reading of “Post-Coital,” Monica Raymond’s world-weary, vatic cadence in the closing piece, “Economies.”

I think the fact that I was still able to conjure these up a year later is a pretty strong testimony to the power of audio to focus attention. The Monitor article mentions Socrates’ dismissal of written language in passing, as a way to call into question the seriousness of these new criticisms of electronic media, treating it as self-evident that Socrates was just a conservative old fart. But Socrates was right, as any number of studies of contemporary oral societies have shown: dependence on writing systems has harmed our memories and fundamentally altered our ability to listen and thereby internalize language. Heard speech is alive in a way that printed words are not, though our ability to record and now digitize it does alter its ephemerality, if not quite its relationship to time. The druids too opposed literacy, for much the same reason as Socrates, but they took a huge gamble in doing so and essentially lost: what we know of them today is largely what was written down by their enemies. And would anyone remember Socrates if not for Plato?

Economy in the gardenJust as there are tradeoffs in transitioning from orality to literacy, so too, I think, are there tradeoffs in making the mental adaptations to a more webby organization of knowledge. I’ve always been prone to associative thinking myself, so it’s no surprise I’ve become addicted to the web. Reading books (and occasionally magazines, such as the Christian Science Monitor’s print weekly) remains a great pleasure, however. This past April, when I read and reviewed a book of poetry a day, I didn’t feel as if I was depriving myself of anything to spend all that reading time away from the computer each day.

Like a lot of people, I’m still trying to find the right balance between online and offline reading, but since I’m also a writer, I have another way to measure the satisfaction I get from different media: not only how much do they stay with me and impact my thinking, but also how well do they inspire me? And I have to say that these days I am just as likely to feel that familiar tickle in the back of the brain that says “poem on the way” after watching a bunch of videopoems or listening to poetry podcasts as I am after reading a print collection. Inspiration is a kind of gestalt experience for me, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I find these novel combinations of printed, digital and oral texts and still and moving images so stimulating.

Phoenicia Publishing is running a brief sale: 10% off all qarrtsiluni print editions through August 5. See the site sidebar for details.

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  1. Dave, thanks for writing this and for pointing out that excellent Christian Science Monitor article. What I found most interesting in it was the section about traditional books being linear presentations by a single author, where the web’s emphasis on discussion refuses to allow that “set-in-stone” quality of one person’s thought. It’s one of the things I’ve most appreciated about blogging, and there’s no question in my mind that online reading, thinking, commenting and collaboration have made me sharper, quicker, and more creative — as well as happier. I think I wrote (positively) about this a while back in a post about what’s happening to the traditional essay form.

    However, that static quality applies much more to non-fiction books than prose literature, where (most of the time) we still want to experience the story as a linear unfolding. I do worry that people will lose the patience necessary for reading a long book, but being compelled by a story is a pretty human characteristic. It’s a question of how much our brains will retain the ability to settle deeply into a slow-reading/thinking mode, as opposed to hunting/gathering for information and passively absorbing a movie, video, or TV show.

    But is it that bad to have our brains change in some ways? I used to be fast with numbers in my head, but that’s long gone — does the fact that I’ve adapted to a new tool mean I’m dumber? I don’t think so; this is the way humans have always changed and evolved.

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    1. Beth, thanks for bringing out that point from the article, which I alluded to but didn’t credit with my remark about assoccative thinking. (In typical Monitor fashion, the author really went in-depth and approached the issue from all sides, which is great because I think there’s merit in most of the views quoted. There’s a LOT more I could’ve said in response, but I held back because I wanted to keep this post to a readable length — readable in web terms, that is.) But you’re right that what works for more information-oriented writing might not be true for fiction or creative nonfiction, let alone book-length poems. The mind is engaged more actively in reading books than in watching movies, I believe, but that’s certainly no reason to stop making and watching films! And really, is the movie-going experience so different from seeing a play or opera? Multimedia presentations of stories have been with us for millennia.

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  2. “But Socrates was right, as any number of studies of contemporary oral societies have shown: dependence on writing systems has harmed our memories and fundamentally altered our ability to listen and thereby internalize language.”

    Yep.

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned anywhere (can’t be sure — my reading has affected my memory!) my delight in my new Audible subscription. (I looked at it four years ago or so, but the price was way too high then.) I select a book a month to download. Most of the readers are quite good. It often carries an emotional depth that silent reading of prose usually lacks for me.

    Funny: after reading your mention of Kindle, I went over to Amazon to read that the next generation Kindle is for sale. It appears to have some big improvements, and, unless one has to download without WiFi, one would spend only $139 for it. I still won’t get it for three reasons (besides the fact that I’m broke again): (1) most of the books I buy aren’t among the half-million books downloadable on a Kindle, (2) the books I want that I can buy on Kindle are usually cheaper used in paper, and (3) I can’t take notes and cross-reference in Kindle the way I enjoy doing in books.

    Funny also that you mentioned associative thinking. I was at a wonderful bookstore today near the cottage my mom rents for the extended family each year. The only way I could take prose today was by picking two very different books off of the shelves and reading from them alternately. Then I’d stare off and enjoy how my mind played one off of the other.

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    1. If you have mentioned Audible, I missed that post at Slow Reads — which seems unlikely. (Of course, I’d be happy to publish another guest post in this Poetics and Technology series, too, if you felt so inclined.)

      Yeah, if I’m not rushing out to buy a Kindle either, it’s precisely because, as you say, it doesn’t seem to have too many poetry or creative nonfiction books yet. John Miedema has groused about the lack of a note-taking utlity, as well. Hard to understand why they wouldn’t include that. I can see using an e-reader or tablet to work through Spanish-language poems, but not if I didn’t have somewhere to jot down definitions of new words and such.

      I remember your blogging about that bookstore. Glad to hear it’s still in business.

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