Forgive me if my brilliance is not up to par today. I’ve got a lot of things bouncing around in my brain and I’m feeling rushed. It’s kind of like when I worked and had a REAL JOB and things would pile up on my desk and when I sifted through them I would usually find a scrap of paper near the bottom of the pile, yellowed with age, that read “Do this tomorrow or else.”
We have a funeral this afternoon here in Winnsboro and I’m cooking a casserole and a cake. Also one of the grands is coming for the week and I have to batten down the hatches. Plus I’ve lost my iPod which is the only reason to ever get into a car so the whole shopping thing has been delayed and we are out of popcorn. This alone is an emergency of the highest proportions around here. And did I mention that our pond has dried up and all our fish are dead? You can imagine what our yard smells like. I’m feeling very scattered.
Usually I spend more time getting all the words to line up when I write here. And, actually, that’s what I wanted to talk about today.
There is a new book out that I’m really enjoying: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The subtitle is “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” I’m only about a third of my way through it and already think this is an idea ripe for discussion. In fact, a corollary of this subject came to me years ago during one of my “theme reads.”
I went through a two or three year obsession with Lewis and Clark that led into a simultaneous obsession with Thomas Jefferson. I read everything I could find on the subjects. This led into a whole American Revolution, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin theme-read.
Part of my fascination with these revolutionary fathers was because their lifestyles were so different from my own yet they are who I am. They created the country I live in. And it wasn’t so long ago but it was. People travelled by horseback and ate food cooked over a fire. When the sun went down it got dark and they went to bed because they couldn’t see.
In the midst of my crush on the founding fathers I decided to spend an entire evening just the way people in the 18th century lived—only an evening. All I had to do was read a bit and go to bed. I thought just an evening would be a snap but it was a real eye-opener. It took 12 candles before I could really see well enough to read by candlelight. But this made the room hot so I abandoned the idea. I tried to assemble the ingredients for a snack and almost caught my hair on fire looking in the back of a cabinet while holding a candle. I thought of listening to music but that involved electricity. There was just nothing to do but think.
I think modern people have forgotten how to think. We spend more time “doing” than we spend thinking about what we’re going to “do.” If you’re looking for a reason everything in the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, this might be a clue.
The Shallows talks more about how our brains have changed by modern technology although I don’t pay much attention to how my brain works. But I think civilization has inevitably changed our thinking habits over the years. The book describes how humans had to first invent a language to communicate, then a written language, then something to write on, then books. And every time we came up with something new our brains re-wired themselves. That’s about as far as I have gotten in the book so I can’t say if he is going to cover one of my own theories: The way we write and compose has changed due to the editing features of electronic word processing. And this, in turn, has changed the way we think.
I don’t have to think very far in advance when I write. I put a bunch of words on the screen then I re-arrange them, delete some and add others. Eventually I get them in the order I like. My thinking has become quite fluid and “on the fly.” So, here’s my question: When the process by which I arrive at thoughts changes, does the message change also? Without the internal tempering of our ideas, a maturation process generated in the privacy of one’s own mind, do those ideas greet the public prematurely--before they have seasoned and deepened, before they are well-rounded and complete?
We do a lot of stuff nowadays without much preparation.
Before Lewis and Clark left Missouri to explore the Northwest Passage they had to Prepare. They would have no contact with home until they returned. Indeed, when they returned home three years later everybody was surprised to see them. They had been gone so long people assumed they had died.
So, before they left they had to think things through. This is becoming almost a novel idea today. They had to pack everything they would need for the expedition, from medicines to bullets and even writing paper, knowing they wouldn’t be able to buy certain things en route. They had few ideas of what they would encounter. Jefferson gave them general directions on how to treat any Native Americans they might encounter (Be friendly but firm.) Other than that, they were on their own. They couldn’t phone Jefferson for advice. They couldn’t send for reinforcements or extra blankets.
Contrast that with today when you go to the store for groceries and you call home a couple of times to be reminded of what you plan to buy then have another couple of conversations there in the store on what size box of cereal to buy. You can even take a photograph of a package and send it home to see if you’re buying the right package. You have the luxury of not having to plan ahead.
The main thing that fascinated me about writers like Jefferson and Franklin was how deeply thought out their words were by the time they reached paper. No spell check, no editing features. No word count, Thesaurus, or auto correct.
And this is where my real point is. It’s one point The Shallows hasn’t made in the first third of the book that I’ve read so far: How much different must these writers have thought in order to have the completed thought in their heads before anything went on paper? I can’t assemble more than a few sentences in my mind let alone remember them long enough to get the complete set of words to paper.
When Jefferson was given the assignment to write the Declaration of Independence he thought it through before he even picked up his quill pen. There weren’t any wadded up balls of paper littering his floor when he changed what he wanted to say. Paper was too precious. He thought it through, edited it in his head, re-worked it, changed a few words, moved paragraphs around. Then and only then, he wrote it down.
To my knowledge there is only one copy of the Declaration of Independence with editing marks from Adams’ and Franklin’s input. The greatest written paper in the history of our country, an international classic, and most of the editing was done inside Thomas Jefferson’s mind.
I’d love to know what was going on inside his mind. It must have been a red, white and blue explosion of synapses firing from dawn to sunset. And probably even after dark. He had probably mastered the art of thinking that I have yet to find.
The night I spent without artificial light may have been too short of an experiment. Maybe we all need to spend some time, maybe a lot of time, in the dark—just thinking. Turning off the spigot and holding the thoughts for a while to let them age and ferment, deepen with a little rest.
We could all do with putting a little more thought into what we say and do.