Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

Retreating into reading: The refuge of older books

Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.

I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.

Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:

  • Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
  • Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
  • Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
  • Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave

Inspirations… (Jan. 27, 2017)

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The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men  from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.

The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient. 

For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.

And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.

I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Parable of the Sower  and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Inspirations… (Jan. 19, 2017)

womens-march-sperry-wow-webThe Women’s March on Washington is what is inspiring me right now. It started out as just an idea following on the surprising election results and has now grown, grassroots-style, into the largest protest and demonstration to take place in response to the inauguration. The march is for everyone, regardless of gender identity, who believes that women’s rights are human rights. The primary march will be held in Washington, DC, but there will be supporting marches in cities, large and small, around the world. Where I live, there are at least three supporting events within easy driving distance.

I was impressed with the Women’s March Global Mission for Equality, and I hope this signals the beginning of a powerful and effective worldwide movement. I only wish that education of girls and women was a plank in the mission statement, because I personally believe that education is the key to empowering women.

For those of us who enjoy self-education, I offer my favorite feminist reads to help you resist in the coming years:

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
  • The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  • The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  • Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Recommended Reading: The Long and Faraway Gone

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney follows two characters–only slightly connected–who are both from Oklahoma City and are both struggling to get past unresolved mysteries from their youth. Wyatt, now a private investigator living in Las Vegas, returns to Oklahoma City as a favor for a friend to find out who is harassing a woman who recently inherited a bar; the trip brings up buried memories, because when Wyatt was fifteen and worked at a movie theater one summer, he was the only survivor of a mass shooting and robbery there, and has since struggled to figure out why. Julianna never left Oklahoma City; she is a nurse who is obsessed with what happened to her older sister, who disappeared from the State Fair that same summer. These two characters’ paths occasionally cross, but their stories are separate and are both engrossing. With three mysteries in one, this novel is understated but not slow-moving, with well-defined characters and a fascinating subtext about how we inadvertently touch so many other peoples’ lives as we go about living ours.

Hiatus…

I’m taking a hiatus from this website and all social media for an indefinite period. The Internet is not a healthy place for me to be right now.

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Some thoughts about immersion and book abandonment…

In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.

I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)

The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.

There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.

And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.