Saturday, August 14, 2004

Thinking time

A few years ago, I bought a copy of James Gleick's Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I enjoyed his Chaos: The Making of a New Science when I was in high school, and the title tickled my fancy. I enjoyed it enough that I took it home for my parents to read. I spent part of yesterday evening browsing through the shelves around my old room, saw that Faster was still there, and picked it up. I think I might take it back to California with me.

There's a semi-humorous You might be a graduate student if... list that used to occasionally make it into my inbox. It was funnier before I passed through the 20th grade. One of the bullets is you find the bibliographies of books more interesting than the actual text. I don't feel exactly that way, but besides the re-read value, a strong reason for bringing Faster back to Berkeley with me is for the references, both in the Acknowledgements and Notes section and in the body of the text. More book recommendations!

(I've barely scratched the list of books recommended from reading From Dawn to Decadence, but since when has that factored into my reading habits?)

Vacations are a good time to think about time. What does mail have over e-mail? I've mentioned the aesthetics of pen and paper before. But I think another attraction of hand-written letters is the time they take, both in the drafting and in the sending.

I can type faster than I write, faster even than I can draft a coherent sentence. So when I type, my hand has the tendency to run ahead of me; then I backspace; and then my fingers run ahead again. The mental image I have is of a man walking a crazed little dog -- the type that runs in circles and yips impatiently at the staid pace of its owner. That's an exaggeration, but it captures the feeling. It's a sort of fidget. When I write with pen and paper, or with pencil and paper, I have much less difficulty keeping up my hands in sync with my thoughts. Furthermore, I often write letters in parts; a paragraph or two one day, a few more the next. I rarely write e-mail that way.

Then there's the sending. Write an e-mail, hit send, and you can expect the message to arrive in a matter of minutes. Write a letter, drop it in the mailbox, and you can expect it to arrive in a few days. And that's fast! One of the themes running through Patrick O'Brian's books, which are set in the British Navy early in the nineteenth century, is the sending and receiving of mail. A letter sent could take months to arrive at its destination, if it arrived at all. A correspondence in which there are months of delay between exchanges must be different from a correspondence in which the delay is a minute, an hour, even a day. Minutes are a matter of short term memory; months are not.

Have you noticed how much shorter pop music pieces are than classical or jazz pieces? Or how instantly identifiable BBC segments are by the relatively long periods of time the camera remains in one place? How differently people talk on cell phones than on land lines? How different conversations are when you have only a few minutes to talk over the phone rather than a couple hours to talk over food (or over books, as the case may be)?

Fill in the blank: the blank pace of modern life. Hectic, right? There's a very interesting discussion of American perceptions of leisure time in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (which came to my parent's home around the same time as Faster; the two books sit together on the shelf). It's not very original to say that Americans scurry a lot; nor is it original to observe that we actually have a lot of spare time, much more than we realize. Unoriginal hardly means unworthy, though. Old topics are good for chewing slowly; and time is a very old topic.

What's the most famous quote of Thoreau? I came to the woods to live deliberately. The word deliberately does not connote slowness so much as unhurried or careful. It's good to spend some time remembering to be deliberate.

I don't want to reject the fast or the slow. I just like being able to think about it, and make choices about what things I find useful and what things I'd rather not have:
Cell-phone? Not yet.
E-mail? Is great.
Long letters? Also great.
Staccato sentence fragments? Check.

  • Currently drinking: Green tea