Not only do I keep the seemingly anachronistic phone books that appear annually on my doorstep, I use them from time to time, and this weekend I found myself searching for the directory’s latest incarnation in order to look up an address. I needed to find a service center for the wireless device I reluctantly purchased a few months ago so that I wouldn’t spend most of my time without access to the internet. My trip to the store was of the universally aggravating sort that need not be explained, and I left the store with another broadband card coming in the mail, and this wry thought on repeat in my head: A book never let me down like this.
I don’t like the idea of relying on ‘stuff’ to entertain me. Although I am a devotee of Facebook and Twitter (and, of course, blogging) I am equally wary of the barrage of contact and stimulation they can provide. I don’t want gadgets, I don’t want a million TV channels, and I want it to be easy to unplug and to look for something real. I look at new technology and see new passwords to memorize, new directions to uncode, new chargers to clutter the basket under the couch. I also see things that pass away – why get attached to something that will be out in a few years? I’m not opposed to technology in general: for example, I am quite glad that it exists when I am at the doctor, and despite doing most of my writing by hand, I still use the Internet to share my ideas with a world that may or may not care. I’m just opposed to the more-is-better attitude that is quickly becoming sacrosanct. My phone does nothing but call and text, my TV does nothing but show network channels. I know I can live without them, and from time to time I do.
Now we can “read books” on an electronic device – convenient for travelling, I suppose, but at what cost? There are two books with which I have spent more time than with any other: the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov. Both of those are as precious to me as objects as they are as repositories of the written word. The sections that fall open tell the story of what has intrigued and moved me, and the many years of underlining and scribbling in the margins track how I have changed in relation to these unchangeable texts. Almost every dinner with my parents and brother ends with some good-natured factual dispute or confusion that requires the use of a reference book. Someone fetches the dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia, or Bible and we resolve whatever has come up. The act of dashing up the stairs or digging through a stack of books to retrieve the information gives it more value, and as the book goes back on the shelf we know that it will be there the next time we need it.
We can read these books on a screen. We can take online tours of great museums, and listen to “choirs” of singers who have recording themselves individually in their bedrooms. We can look at the Grand Canyon on Google Earth. None of this can come close to the real thing.
We label these experiences “virtual” – virtual tours, virtual performances, etc. When I started thinking about that word I couldn’t pin down the definition, but imagined it was in the ballpark of “not real, imaginary, a substitute for that which is real”. The true definition (which, incidentally, I looked up in an old-fashioned hardcover dictionary) horrified me: being in essence or effect, though not formally recognized or admitted. In other words, pretty much the real thing, even if no one will say that out loud.
Let’s not delude ourselves that any of this is real. Turning that last corner at the Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s David is real. Feeling the breeze on your face is real. Hearing a live chorus (or better yet, experiencing the camaraderie and intimacy of singing in one, of having your artistry affected by the person standing next to you) is real. Looking in someone’s eyes, holding someone’s hand – those things are realer than any Facebook status or Direct Message. Our ‘virtual’ activities are fine substitutes when circumstances prevent our experiencing reality, but too often we use them to escape the power of the real.
In the end, I’m willing to sacrifice convenience for simplicity, staying unplugged for stretches of time, using old paper maps and phone books on my search for the real – in books, art, nature and people.