Running in Place as My Mind Wanders
The last few mornings, I’ve taken to spending exactly ten minutes on the treadmill before heading off to work. I have a copy of the Time Traveler’s Wife on my PDA so I plug that into a pair of amplified speakers that I built a few months ago and try to make sure I break a sweat before my morning shower. My wife always tells me that I need to concentrate on doing one thing at a time rather than trying to listen, exercise, and play audiophile (btw one really interesting test of speaker quality is to listen to spoken word sources on them for extended periods of time. Often if there’s something wrong, you won’t be able to listen all that long) at the same time. She fights back by warning me that if I play the book loudly enough to be heard over the motor of the treadmill, it’ll wake up our daughter. Anyway, my current regimen is to do all of 10 minutes on the treadmill which amounts to three quarters of a mile. I know this isn’t much of a physical workout. It’s not exactly meditation either, but that’s not the point. I’m doing it to develop some replacement habits. My default position is in the living room browsing the internet. I know it’s not healthy, but flickering websites alternating past me appeals to the ADD end of my personality.
I figure that the books on PDA or tape can’t be a bad thing. I was having a really good time with Eli Evans’s, The Provincials, a personal study of Jews in the South, just a couple weeks ago. A few years ago, I lived part of the time in Washington D.C. and I had a housemate, David Rabin, who loved to invite people to brunch and dinner at the house. One time, he had over a woman who was working in campaign finance reform who also happened to have grown up Jewish in Oklahoma. That was the first time I’d ever heard of “Jew Stores”. Jew Stores filled an economic niche in the South in that they brought relatively exotic goods to remote places, extended credit, and served both black and white customers. Most towns had one and many Southern towns had very small Jewish communities.
Much like the Chinese diaspora, the Jews have spread across the world to a number of countries where they remain permanent minorities. Both Chinese and Jewish culture tend to stress that children maintain a separate ethnic identity while assimilating in most every other way imaginable. Anyway, Evans’s book, which started as a series of articles in Harpers’ back in the early 70’s that were first commissioned by Willie Morris, provided a strangely soothing portrait of Jews in the American South. I say soothing because it paralleled the rural California Chinese I write about in my stories in so many ways.
Evans is at his best in describing the fascinating sociology of his father’s “Jew Store” in Durham, North Carolina in the fifties where it served as a cross between an old rural general store, a pre-Walmart five and dime, and common folks department store. Evans’s father was actually the mayor of Durham for many years, but fascinatingly Evans always saw himself as an outsider. The Jew store played a unique role in southern small town culture in the way the owners often remained outsiders in some essential way, yet the stores themselves served as junction points both commercially and culturally for the black and white communities within the town.
Evans is a little less good is that the book, perhaps it was the vogue in the 70’s when it was written, also includes endless recountings of studies and surveys about American attitudes about the Jews and Judaism. When you’re listening while on a treadmill though, those sections are perfect for cranking up the speed and incline, which makes it a bit harder to listen, and concentrating on the workout part.
Over the last ten years, there’s been a plethora of ways to enjoy books, movies, and music at times and in places you once wouldn’t have thought practical, possible, or desirable. At this point, I probably listen to more books on tape than I read in printed form. Where I used to read in an armchair in the living room or in bed (my wife and I argue about the light needing to be off at certain times though and how I make noise turning the pages after she falls not quite asleep), I now do much of my “reading” in the car, while riding my bicycle, walking into town, or on the treadmill in the garage. Similarly where movies used to be something I saw in a theater, I not only watch movies on DVD in the living room where I can stop, pause, rewind, etc., I also watch a lot of them on my PDA when waiting at the doctor’s office or riding on busses to the airport.
It goes without saying that I get to listen to music most anywhere and at most any time as opposed to the days when I knew the only decent audio version could be gotten from my turntable and several thousand dollars worth of stereo equipment carefully set up in some room of my home.
I do think this is generally a good thing, but I am noticing that consuming “culture” in this fashion does affect my tastes. Mostly, it allows me to slip in and out of paying attention to the source. I now rather like things more that don’t depend on quite the same level of beginning to end dedication. If the book or movie is something that I can enjoy at more or less random ten minute snippets, all the better. I suppose this is deeply insulting to the creative folk who pour their souls into getting every detail and sequence just so in their work. I’d hate it if someone read one of my stories a page at a time, not necessarily in order, while trying to work up a sweat jogging. That’s not quite true, I do think it beats being completely ignored and unread.
I know that television served as video wallpaper for at least two generations and that radio largely served that function for at least a generation before that. In fact, radio is an interesting reference point. There was a time when the console radio served as the center point of both the living room and family entertainment. Starting when I was a kid, radios became smaller, more portable, and much more something that was just going on in the background as people’s attentions drifted in and out of listening. Radio programming changed accordingly.
So, I’m wondering if over time they’ll start creating books expressly written to be “listened to” in short slightly distracted blocks? Maybe it’s happening already? I do think movies have already changed to suit a world where people are as likely to view them over and over on a portable DVD or PDA-IPOD like device as to watch them beginning to end in a single sitting. More and more there are movies built around a single scene or scenes that seem aimed at people who might stop and replay that scene continuously and enjoy multiple playings. Often, they have surprisingly flimsy or fractured plots and most of the resources and creativity went into developing a single set piece that serves as the “focal point” of the previews and eventually the movie itself.
It’s quite likely that none of this is healthy either for “culture” or for me, but I do wonder if it’s possible to create things that are “artistic” , “enlighteningly funny”, or “profound” for a media environment that’s increasingly concentration-challenged. I’ve honestly loved listening to books and listening to music while doing other things. It doesn’t mean that I can’t or don’t sit and pay undivided attention to some books and some music, but I confess I do both a lot less these days. I also do from time to time come across something striking while viewing or listening in this fashion and I take a few seconds or even minutes to “study” or think carefully about what’s being communicated. At the same time, it might be very interesting to develop cultural media that can make the brain and the body sweat at the same time. Is the product inherently worse or less worthy because you’re not expected to be totally focused on it? Will a book read differently when I absorb it with my heart going 150 beats per minute instead of 60?
I guess the oddest thing about it all is that for most of my life I’ve both run and read without the aid of machines. Maybe before I die, they’ll have books that you don’t either read or listen to per se, you just absorb them while say running on a treadmill?