Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Message in a bottle

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.’ – Rebecca Solnit.

‘In or around June 1995 human character changed again,’ Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2014. This was a reference to the profound changes in all our lives as we transitioned from the analog world (letters, movies, books, conversation) into the digital world (emails, Facebook, Google, cellphones, the internet.) Solnit, like me, knew the analog world profoundly – her quote even references an author - Virginia Woolf ’s famous comment that human character changed about the time of the post-impressionist exhibition in London in 1910, unleashing modernism into our lives.

Solnit applauds the changes brought by technology – ‘Many people now have voices without censorship’. She links 1989’s Tiananmen Square protest to the fax revolution; Facebook was instrumental in the Arab Spring’s initial phase in 2011; Occupy Wall Street was originally a Twitter hashtag. At the same time she wonders whether we haven’t lost something really important. ‘Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.’

Part of the problem is that none of us can concentrate any more. We’re too busy jumping from site to site, device to device, worrying that we’ll miss out. I know this myself. I’m a writer whose future is entirely dependent on people continuing to read. But I find it hard to settle with a book these days. I’m anxious that I’ll miss out on the zeitgeist which keeps flickering and shimmering and ever changing just before I can apprehend it. So in a trance I just have to keep going.

Recently however I’ve ordered myself to stop sitting looking at my iphone and spend some time in the evening reading. And to my surprise I succumbed to the long distance pleasure of a good read. What do I mean by ‘long distance pleasure’? Well you have to go back to an older form of transport it’s true. I’m thinking of a long train trip that took you through all sorts of territories, vistas, mountains, plains, snow, heat. The high point of the novel actually sits in tandem with the development of the railway – think of Anna Karenina and how the train is so key in that novel. But what I mean is reading something really immersive can have the sense of a developing dream or meditation. You read what’s on the page but you somehow also have a parallel narrative in your own head. What you read on the page sets off rockets in your head – associations, images, parallel thoughts. (I’m reading Hannah Rothschild’s ‘The Improbability of Love’ at the moment. It’s a commentary on the high art world of contemporary London, both comic and discerning. It’s an enjoyable read.)

Of course I am an author so I have a financial interest in spruiking reading as a pleasurable activity. (Well, barely financial really, marginally financial on the level of a joke.) But the fact is I am about to launch off onto another book. So I have to sort of gather my energy together to commence the long journey. The strange thing is with writing a long-term book you have to believe there are readers at the other end of it. They’re the people you’re addressing, talking to, murmuring to. You have to think of not merely what interests you – obsesses you – but what interests them.

I want to write a book which is a voyage round some family letters. None of the letters is in any way remarkable. My mother wasn’t a poet, my ancestors were ordinary people trying to make sense of their lives. I don’t think there is a single philosophical concept enunciated in any of the letters. But this is what makes them so interesting to me. They are literary byproducts of life as it was lived. I’m interesting in seeing how much juice you can get from an ordinary letter – how much social history, gender politics, expression or unawareness of racism, how they express a time and a place. So in a way it's a book about a love affair with letters.

Solnit reflects back to some of the lost pleasures of the analog period. ‘That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time’. Human contact and continuity of experience were a given. You read a book. You spoke on the phone. You wrote a letter. And if you got a letter it was exciting –‘the paper and the handwriting told you something.’ If the letter was from a lover or a particular friend you could carry that letter round with you in your bag. Your fingers might touch it when you were feeling tense. You could get the letter out and find another meaning in a sentence. The very handwriting was the signature of a soul.  So my book is about that strange lost world of letter-writing - of stillness, maybe even silence.

I think we all need silence in our lives.

I suddenly feel excited about this project. I can see its possibilities. It's both biography and autobiography, social history and something even looser. For ages I’ve been ‘maundering and globbering’ as a writer friend so accurately describes the mood – chewing on something unappetizing in a slightly depressed frame of mind. But now I suddenly feel the excitement of invention. (Maybe I’ve spat that unappetizing thing out?) So, even though I’m aware I’m still operating in the analog world by writing a book (or a long form complex document made up of words and images) I’m also aware I exist in this fractious, exciting, fragmented, slightly dazed, demented, dirty digital medium which is obsessed with what is happening just beyond the now. I’m not sure if I believe Solnit when she says technology has contracted communication. But I am sure it’s changed it forever. Or maybe another way of viewing things is that this piece of writing itself is a letter - to you, the reader.