The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

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Watching your gait: how walking helps your writing

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In 2014, researchers at Stanford university found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while
they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when
walking.

This research builds on studies conducted by other academic institutions, including
the University of Michigan and Illinois that confirmed what many Neuroscientists had
previously identified: that the non-thinking ‘default state‘ of consciousness is key to
creative thinking. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are
buried in the subconscious.

Probably the perfect potion for positive peripatetic philosophy

The implications of this research upon writers and other creatives is clear (we should
all be walking more to spur the creativity needed to overcome things like writer’s
block and conjure unique ideas). Yet this perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising.
After all, writers, artists and other creative thinkers have been extolling the virtues of
physical exercise – and walking in particular – for years.

Indeed, the founding fathers of philosophy – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – were all said
to use walking as a means of conjuring creative thought (Aristotle’s habit of walking back and forth as he taught earned the Lyceum the name of the Peripatetic School [from the Greek word for walking around, peripatetikos]). Meanwhile, Darwin walked what he called his “thinking path” twice daily while Dickens walked all over London, three or four hours at a time.

And, to make a pop-cultural reference, Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he wrote lyrics
to his acclaimed musical Hamilton during Sunday walks with his dog.

Walking and writing: enriching your soul

Soren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, has said of his habitual perambulations that “I have
walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Walt Whitman said walking left him “enrich’d of soul”; while William Wordsworth (to stick with the poets with alliterative, w-led names), said that walking was “indivisible” from writing poetry. Note here a curious calculation by Thomas DeQuincey that Wordsworth walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime
(between 6 and 7 miles a day, every day).

There is a clear suggestion here that to write well, one must also be willing to get up from the writing desk. This is something American writer Henry Miller, fervently believed in, saying: “most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever”.

How it all works

The reason for this link between writing and walking is perhaps not dissimilar from
that between writing and long-distant running or other solitary physical activity
(check out our article on this right here at Nothing in the Rulebook on this very
topic). Walking – and other solo activities like it – provides just enough diversion to
occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts
mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the
surface.

There is also a clear link between the physical experience of walking and the rhythm and beats of our writing, our poetry and our music. This is the rhythm of our bodies, our steps, and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech and our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre.

A life less dangerous: why walk and write?

But the value of walking also extends beyond improvements to our writing and creative abilities. It also helps us, as individuals, escape from a world of distractions – of music pumped into waiting rooms and public spaces, of a life plugged into phones and tablets, where we are constantly on-call, working increasingly longer hours and forced to keep up the appearances of our social media profiles. As Norwegian writer and publisher Erling Kagge, author of ‘Walking: one step at a time’ notes: “Today, you can live a life in a car and behind a screen, and never see the people who live around you. It’s dangerous.”

“Why exist?” An interview with Bruce Lee, ‘the most depressed fish in the world’

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The Siamese Fighting Fish known as Bruce Lee had no idea he would find himself at the centre of a global conversation about fish depression. When he woke up for his morning fish flakes on Monday morning, he was shocked, perplexed and, yes, a little anxious and depressed to see his shining blue face and gills effervescent on the smartphone screen of the woman staying in his hotel room – also known to Bruce and his imaginary aquatic companion Ralph the Japanese Wrestling Toad as ‘the Great Beyond’.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Bruce confides during an exclusive interview with Nothing in the Rulebook. “When that New York Times reporter started taking photographs of me, I just assumed it was for their Instagram account. And the questions they were asking – about whether I had a loving relationship with my parents or if I believed in God – well they’re just pretty standard, really. A lot of guests at Holiday Inn hotels find themselves having existential questions with fish; it’s really not uncommon.”

A staunch supporter of fish rights, Bruce has been on at least three circular swims around his bowl in the last half hour alone – all in protest at the way fish so regularly have their photographs taken without their permission, gaining no financial reward when these images are then shared worldwide.

“That David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series – he’s just the worst. I regularly commune with a Tiger shark I met on the fish internet called Terry, who hasn’t been able to get a job since David and his BBC crew filmed him eating a baby seal. They call him “baby killer” and “seal muncher” in interviews. He’s been losing weight; his wife left him, taking their pups with her. And what did he get? Not a dime from the production company. When he goes too close to the shallows now, people start screaming at him, they even bring in helicopters, chasing him away with harpoons and speed boats. They recognise him from the TV show, you see. It’s really not right what these pornographers – and they are pornographers, there’s no other term for it – do to us. We have rights, too.”

But what does Bruce think about the core subject matter of the article about his supposed depression? On this, the Betta takes a complex view.

“All I see is grey”

“You see, the thing is, I’m not what you would call the sort of fish who gets depression,” he explains. “Sure, there are days when I wake up and all I see is grey, and it feels as though I’m moving through liquid, with a strange weight all around me. But then, there will be others where everything is new and different and exciting. You look down to the bottom of your tank and you see there’s a new pebble that’s been overturned and it has the most beautiful pattern like nothing you’ve ever seen before. So I guess that’s just the nature of life in a way – it has ups and downs.”

“But of course, fish depression really is the silent killer. And a big problem in the shoaling communities is that you lose touch with your friends as you get older. They stop coming to visit your tank; you stop making the effort to go to the fake alligator or meet them in the plastic plants, because hey, you’re not fry anymore and you’re spending each of your days busting your gut down by the filtration system, so you just want to go back to your corner and drift along by the floor of your tank and maybe watch Netflix if one of the guests is into something decent like Stranger Things or Hannibal. You just don’t have the energy to keep up with all these young guppies showboating with the cash they’ve been flush with since Thatcher privatised all the old state industries and deregulated the financial fish market.”

“Too many fish just sort of disappear”

“I’ve known too many fish who just sort of disappear this way. One day they’re there – the next; bam! Floating upside down in a toilet. Of course no fish asks for this. But nobody ever knows where to go. They never talk about it. And that’s the most important thing. You need fins to cry on; you need folks to turn to; you need to speak up. So yes, in that respect I suppose it is a good thing that this article came out when it did – it’s just a shame that journalist didn’t ask my permission to use my photo, and I don’t see why some of those sweet internet royalties couldn’t find their way to me somehow.”

Speaking to Bruce, you can’t help but get the impression that he’s trying to deflect around something that is otherwise gnawing at him. He’s all pomp and bluster and good natured conversation – offering you as many fish flakes as you like and never flinching when you accidently tap the glass of his tank. But this is a fish with a very real wall around him, blocking him off from the rest of the world. As though in a move to combat this impression, he pre-emptively moves to forgo further questioning about his personal feelings by offering us un-inhibited access to the personal diary he has kept for “somewhere between one hour and four years, depending on time and my life expectancy, etc – what ever that is,” he says.

Reading the diary is a far more revealing experience than, perhaps, either Bruce or this interviewer expected.

Diary of a lonely fish

Diary entries range from the elegiac; “I spent three moons deep at rest beneath the swirling stars of the hotel guest’s laptop screensaver. The quickening slivers of colour warping around each other seemed for a moment to mirror the beating of my heart, and with each movement of water through my gills it felt as though, for the first time, I could feel the intrinsic separation of oxygen from hydrogen molecules as the liquid passed back into my tank, and the sweet elixir of life filled my lungs. And in the ecstasy of the moment all I could think of was how infinite the world was, how perfectly beautiful it is to be mortal and small and unimportant in something so vast.”

To the worryingly short; “why exist?”

But perhaps the most interesting diary entries are those focused around a particular week in the summer of 2016. It is during this time that Bruce’s diary entries are most vivid, at their longest, and filled with an intense optimism about the possibilities of the future.

Donald Trump and a new love interest

Crucially, it is also at this time we are introduced to a new hotel guest – described by Bruce as “An overweight orangutan with a bad toupee and tiny hands”. This guest – who hotel records confirm to be no other than US President Donald Trump – had a habit, the diaries indicate, of setting up mirrors all around the room. While Trump apparently used these mirrors generally to investigate suspicious moles on his back, as well as to stare at his genitalia shouting “It IS bigger than Barack’s, it is!” the truly interesting thing is that in the mirror closest to Bruce’s tank, Bruce first spots “the most incredible vision – a fish more beautiful than words can describe”.

Pressing Bruce to expand on who this fish was, he averts the question, talking about how the animated film Shark Tale is the most racist-against-fish film to have been produced this side of the millennium. Yet other diary entries are more illuminating.

On the second day of Trump’s residency in the room, Bruce notes: “I am yet to build up the courage to talk to her – but I know I must. Never have I felt such a passion stir in me.”

And then, on the fourth: “Feelings! My heart leaps and my world is turned around. For we have the most incredible of all things – an instant, life affirming connection. And this all the more fantastic for there being no words spoken between us. But who needs words when the connection is so strong? After hours of pondering, of second-guessing my best move, I approached this beauty, and as I did so, she turned to face me, too – entirely directly, our eyes meeting, and in that moment, the world stood still. We stayed there, transfixed upon each other’s gaze. Galaxies exploding in our heads, the infinite possibilities of love in our hearts. Every move I made she made too – at identical times, as though we were not two creatures but one; two parts of the same whole. It is true what they say, that souls do have their equal partner. After so long waiting, I have finally found my own.”

Finally, though, disaster. On the afternoon of Trump’s last day in the room, Bruce’s love interest disappears. That evening, Bruce writes: “Oh woe is me my love, for banishment hath found my heart and ripped it from my chest. I cannot think but think of you – I cannot swim but drift to the bottomless depths of despair. How can I carry on without you beside me? What is life without you? What is…”

There are no further diary entries for a period of seven months, until a fresh one appears, signalling a key sea change in his tone of writing: “Fish flakes. The synthetic substance made of my peers. Each mouthful is cannibalism. My life is a lie.”

With a deadline looming, one final attempt is made to persuade Bruce to speak about this period in his life. And to find out what transpired in this Betta’s mind during those ominous seven months of silence. But he is unmoved by our requests and signals with a dorsal fin for us to leave the room. Our exclusive interview with the fish who shot to fame is over.

UPDATE

Two days after this interview was published, Bruce was found on the floor of his hotel room, dead. The apparent cause of death? Suicide by drying out on the carpet.

One day later, a cheque arrived for Bruce from the New York Times.

The NYT have not been available for comment.

Books are neither elitist nor populist: they are fundamental to our entire existence

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Reading books is a way of studying human beings – ourselves – our ideas and our passions, our cultures and histories, our successes and our failures. So how did we reach a point where the literary world is increasingly divided by accusations of, variously, elitism or populism?

In the intriguing book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by the scholar James Turner, it is argued that what we might term ‘academic humanities’ subjects, such as classics, literature, anthropology and comparative arts studies, can be traced back to the splintering of the master discipline of “philology” – the pursuit of wisdom through the study of written words – in the late 19th century.

Literature, and the study of books and the written words of human beings, ought then to be the most accessible of academic disciplines. Indeed, it need not be seen as specifically academic at all. Because it is through the simple act of reading that wisdom is gained.

It might seem obvious, but the fact that the written words of books help us communicate universally applicable ideas to one another is one of the things that sets literature apart from, say, the sciences. Yes we can read, for instance, the scientific observations of theoretical physicists, but we won’t necessarily understand their meaning. Take this description of the point-like particles present in ‘String Theory’:

“Matter particles are usually fermions — particles with an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) that is half-integral in appropriate units. Force carriers like photons and gravitons are “bosons”, particles that carry integer spin. In fact, all the force carriers except the graviton have spin 1 in units of Planck’s constant, while the graviton has spin 2.”

The ideas contained within the scientific writing, then, are not universally applicable. On the other hand, the works of writers of literature are: for instance, you do not need to know the specific historical or cultural context of 19th century Russia to understand the universally recognisable core content and themes of a book like War and Peace or Anna Karenina – where we see characters become bored, fall in love, fall in love with someone else at the same time, get married, commit adultery, fight with rivals.

It has become taboo, in some academic circles, to think this way about fiction. From the 20th century onwards, students at universities studying literature will have likely encountered situations where they have been told it is an error to treat a literary character or scene as anything other than a rhetorical or linguistic or formal or gendered construct. Indeed, it is only by striving for the interpretation and “true meaning” (of which there are nearly always guaranteed to be an infinite number) of a book or story that we should read books, we are told. The act of reading thus is replaced by the act of analysing, evaluating, and theorising. It becomes our business not to empathise with characters but to deconstruct and critique them.

But of course the empathetic element of writing and reading is fundamental to the relationship between the reader and the written word. We develop attachments to fictional characters, simply, because we see ourselves in them. By reflecting characteristics we recognise, characters in books hold a mirror up to our world in a way that science or theoretical academic writing generally can’t.

Fortunately there has been a recent upward surge of writers, academics and literary critics who are increasingly willing to talk about the fundamentally enjoyable pleasure of reading for reading’s sake. The Canadian writer and editor, Alberto Manguel, for example, writes he “would rather describe himself as a reader” rather than a translator or critic.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote “books have been useful to me, less for instruction than as training.” This is perhaps the crux of the matter. When we ask the question ‘what is literature for?’, we can say it is – more than anything – about teaching us about the world, and how to be better human beings; books help us become who we want to be, in other words.

Kafka, truth, reality – and working for an insurance company

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For many aspiring writers and artists working full-time jobs, the difficulty in pursuing their calling comes from the challenge of rousing one’s creative self after hours spent in stressful offices trying to meet tight deadlines. Often, the easiest option is to simply stumble through the front door, and crash in front of the television set on the sofa, or socialise with friends.

For inspiration here, therefore, let us turn to Franz Kafka, the literary genius who spoke of the power books have to “break the frozen seas inside us” and who taught writers to trust in their ability to say what they want (and how they want to). After completing his education, Kafka worked for twelve years in an insurance company – pulling long, hard shifts, and only able to write on nights and weekends.

Despite the limitations of being shackled by the capitalist system, he nonetheless composed The Metamorphosis. And his intellectual, creative mind never ceased working.  In the last four years of his life, he befriended the son of a colleague at the insurance company – a young Czech boy named Gustav Janouch. The two began taking long walks together, on which they discussed everything from literature to love to life itself.

Decades after Kafka’s death, these conversations were put down in writing by Janouch, and published in Conversations with Kafka.

Perhaps some of the most intriguing observations contained in the collection (and there are so many to choose from), are those the pair shared on the topic of reality. For instance, in one encounter, Kafka posits his thoughts on the nature of wisdom, and “truth”:

Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.

[…]

The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.

According to Janouch, after making this point, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist” – which is perhaps how more philosophers should laugh and deliver their observations on the world, human nature and the universe itself. Kafka also added:

Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.

[…]

There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.

 

We’re breaking up: how technology is dampening our creativity

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Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.

Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?

These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:

“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.

Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.

On the shredding of the fabric of time

Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:

“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”

But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.

It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

Digital isolation

A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.

But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”

Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.

Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

She continues:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.

Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”

The context of reality: straight outta context

The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.

Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”

Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.

Reclaiming reality

To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.

As Beston writes, this may begin outside:

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.

 

The tricks of the essayist; a sympathetic summary

Essay

In his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation – Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and a Guide to True Politeness –  Arthur Martine provided the following advice for those who find themselves in “disputes upon moral or scientific points”:

“Let your aim be to come at truth, not conquer your opponent. So you shall never be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In these heady days of the babbling Twittersphere and online trolls; of half-baked, half-formed comments on the echo chambers of Reddit and Facebook; it is fair to say that such advice is rarely heeded. Indeed, the artillery we deploy when hidden behind computer screens and keyboards is less reasonable argument and more simple menace: it is reaction, rather than response. They are opinion, rather than critique.

Yet it needn’t be this way. Rather than believe the falsehood that we must be right at all costs, it is surely preferable that we all engage in active discussion and conversation – and look to deploy skills that enable us to better understand the world around us, and in turn advance the collective understanding of humankind.

Into this may step the non-fiction essay. The written argument or critique, which unfortunately often shows signs of disintegrating in response to the culture of the online newspaper comments section. Indeed, with a few exceptions – most notably the Guardian’s George Monbiot, perhaps – the opinion or comment pages on most of the UK’s newspapers, from the Guardian and the Independent on the so-called establishment left, through to the corporate propaganda at work in The Times and The Telegraph, are increasingly falling short of the high standards necessary for advancing human thought and consciousness through debate, discussion and reasoning.

What is lacking in so many of our debates and so many of the essays available to us, is the necessary rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the art of countering potential criticism, which takes charge of conceivable counterarguments and thoroughly challenges them, seeking ultimately to debunk or disprove them. This is a problem for thinkers of all philosophical and political persuasions, because they are neither able to refute the arguments of others effectively, nor have their own arguments held up to the necessary scrutiny. How can Owen Jones, for instance, improve his argument when the only charge levied against him from those who disagree is that he is “a loony lefty”? Equally, how can those who challenge him hope to advance their own opinions instead, when Jones can easily dismiss such charges out of hand?

As is often the case, there are countless examples from history that illustrate how we can reinvigorate our arguments.

That’s so Blaise

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the ‘three elements of persuasion’ – attunement, buoyancy and clarity – French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, Blaise Pascal, intuited these same mechanisms as he arrived at what he saw as the great truth about the secret of persuasion: that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping it in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In his work Pensees, he examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion into its essence:

“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

On the origin of effective argumentative strategy

Two centuries on from Pascal’s intimations, Charles Darwin – who surely needs no introduction – provided supreme practical proof of the French philosopher’s insight, as he changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth.

Indeed, Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of pre-empting criticism and effectively countering counter arguments before they are levied at our arguments, is explored by New Yorker contributor and essayist, Adam Gopnik, in his book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterworkOn the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

“The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.”

As the book progresses, Gopnik advances in more detail his thoughts on what lies behind this habit of “sympathetic summary”, and considers the essential principle, which lies at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical excellence, which in turn illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

“A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.”

The marriage of ideas and argument

What Pascal and Darwin illustrate in abundance, then, is the necessary ability to marry visionary ideas with a mastery of argument. But of these two aspects, it is perhaps the latter that is the vital requisite to convincing others that your argument bears most weight.

Think, for instance, of Alfred Russel Wallace, known for arriving at the same conclusions of Darwin – concerning natural selection and evolution – but failing to take any credit for this discovery for decades after his death.

The idea both men advanced upon is fundamentally the same: but could Wallace have posited his thesis as effectively as Darwin, and brought about the cultural revolution in thinking that Darwin did? He might have written the words and evidence in support of his own idea, but could he have answered the objections Darwin faced? The likelihood is not: because at its heart, the Origin of Species is a book of answers to questions that are expected to be asked, but have not yet been spoken, and it provides examples and evidence and counter arguments to faceless opponents yet to emerge.

An act of charity

Daniel Dennett, described as “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russel”, picks up on some of the elements present in Darwin’s and Pascal’s works, as he probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics necessary within essay writing. Most pertinently, asking the question “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”

In his work, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, Dennet offers what he calls “the best antidote for the tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a set of rules, or steps, laid out below as a simple starting guide to all aspiring and established essayists.

“How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

Such a strategy is ultimately simple in its theory, yet remains cuttingly effective. For it transforms your opponents – faceless or otherwise – into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion, and the argument. Thus avoiding the risk that all philosophical and political debate becomes the sound of a single record stuck on repeat, exposing retried and reconstituted, regurgitated facts, figures and opinions round and round on a ceaseless merry-go-round of nonsense.

At its heart, this strategy is about seeing what people might say, turning it into what they ought to say, and then answering.

If only such a code of conduct could be advised and followed to all critical commentary online – though doing so in 140 characters might be a feat too far.

 

What is literature for?

In the hurly burly world of our Post-Fordist society, it is increasingly becoming difficult to sit and concentrate for thirty seconds – let alone thirty minutes – as the digital background babble drills into our consciousness, and we are met in the world outside the office by TV in waiting rooms and the backseats of cars; by music in supermarkets, retail stores, gyms and buses; by advertisements everywhere you look.

Each of these things distract us from our thoughts, and from real life. They consume us to such an extent that people sometimes even ask questions like “why do we even need books?” “Why should we spend our times reading novels and poems, when so much is happening?”

Well, fortunately, to answer these questions the wonderful folk at The School of Life have created a marvellous animated essay, which extols the value of books and literature in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

The creators note that we tend to treat literature as a distraction, an entertainment – something for the beach. But it’s far more than that, it’s really therapy, in the broad sense. Indeed, they suggest books could be used as a cure for many of the afflictions that ail us:

“We should learn to treat literature as doctors treat their medicines, something we prescribe in response to a range of ailments and classify according to the problems it might be best suited to addressing.”

The essay notes key rewards found in reading, which are detailed here below:

It saves you time

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness: it lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced. Or kill someone and feel remorseful. Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert. […] it lets you speed up time.

It turns us into citizens of the world

Literature introduces you to fascinating people: a Roman general, an 11th century French Princess, a Russian upper class mother just embarking on an affair…it takes you across continents and centuries. Literature cures you of provincialism and, at almost no extra cost, turns us into citizens of the world.

It makes you nicer

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

It’s a cure for loneliness

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…As the writer Emerson remarked: “In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

It prepares you for failure

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media. They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

The essay concludes with a fitting tribute to literature, and perhaps the most salient answer to that damnable question we first started with – “what is literature for?”

The creators say: “Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.”

We here at Nothing in the Rulebook couldn’t agree more. Why not complement this video essay with musings on the ecstasy of reading, and then peruse some of essential summer and autumnal reading lists.

About the School of Life

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.

Literature festival venues announced

Hopwood Hall College TheaTRE

Hopwood Hall College Theatre

The venues for the Rochdale Literature & Ideas Festival have been announced. Twelve venues will host over 30 live events over the course of the festival, which includes music, readings, comedy, children’s shows, interviews and talks.

The main festival venue will be Rochdale Central Library at Number One Riverside. The library and first floor Hollingworth Conference Suite will stage some performances, including talks by actress Helen Lederer, writer Jackie Kay, playwright Bonnie Greer OBE, comedian Dom Joly and author Jonathan Harvey. Number Ten Gallery on Baille Street, Touchstones Arts and Heritage Centre, Rochdale Town Hall and Bar Vibe Music Venue will also host events.

New venues for 2015 include Hopwood Hall College Theatre in Middleton, the Church of St Edmund and Rochdale Pioneers Museum.

The Flying Horse Hotel hosts Andy Kershaw’s acclaimed one man live show and a Theatre Writing Showcase will be at The Baum.

Warm up events will also be held at Middleton Arena, Rochdale Town Hall, The Baum and Number One Riverside.

The festival will be staged from Friday 23 to Sunday 25 October. It will offer people a chance to get together with others to share or discover a passion for reading and books.

Other highlights include author/poet Gervase Phinn, ‘Emmerdale’ star and photographer Bill Ward, the Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy, television historian David Starkey CBE and poet Lemn Sissay.

Under the theme ‘expand your mind’ – the programme covers workshops, music, readings, children’s shows, interviews, talks and more from other guests including playwright Ian Townsend, artist Jim Medway, poet Andrew McMillan, plus authors Frances Brody, SF Said and Sathnam Sanghera.

There is a full programme of free events for children and families themed ‘Pirate Adventures’.

The festival celebrates and promotes the Maskew Collection of classic literature and philosophy at Rochdale Central Library, encouraging people to engage in thought and philosophy. It is due to the generosity of Annie and Frank Maskew, a Rochdale couple who shared a passion for reading and thinking, who originally met in Rochdale Library. They left a sum of money to be used on resources and events related to literature, and philosophy to ensure classic works are available for future generations.

To find out more and to book your tickets to the festival, please visit the festival website.