The other day, in a moment of wild rationality, I deleted the browser from my phone, and, in effect, banned myself from frivolous internet browsing. Sometimes, the most rational thing is the most rash thing, and in order to free oneself from some modern time leach one must show unthinking disregard for modern conveniences. When I pressed my finger to the small “x” at the top right of the app icon, a weight—a moral weight fell from me. I no longer had the option of wasting time reading droning Buzz Feed articles or banal tweets. In taking away the option to do the worse thing, I gave myself the option to do the better thing. I was, you might say, rashly rational.
Take another example. Last Friday and Saturday I moved my good friend Brandon M. Schneeberger—sometimes secretary, sometimes boss of the esteemed Samuel Snow) into new snug quarters, which he has since dubbed The Ole Midshipman. Now, Brandon M. Schneegberger is a very old fashioned person who can become verbally violent in his condemnations of modern technology. Some may even call his ravings “unbalanced” or even “over-general”—perish the thought! Some have said he is agéd beyond his years (he might tell you the same). Whatever his critics might say, Brandon M. Schneeberger understands the concept of rash rationality, for he has chosen to keep the internet—the entity he claims has come “to destroy the world”—out of The Ole Midshipman. His reasoning is simple: he would rather explore his bookshelf, or fill a notebook with essays than walk on that sticky web of, as the poet Ruper Brook might put it, “lies and truths and pain.” I would only add “half truths” to the poet Brook’s list. Brandon M. Schneeberger has not taken away the internet as much as he has given himself his apartment. In withholding hours of internet browsing and e-mail he has given himself his bookshelf, his kitchen, his writing desk, evening ambles and board games with friends. He has sharpened his view out the small living room window facing a viney garden plot and an old oak.
Speaking from a literary perspective, I have no doubt the internet and television, if available to the literary minded of the past, would have prevented some of the masterpieces we read and enjoy today, for, writing a literary masterpiece takes time, loads of time—years of reading, years of imperfect, shoddy writing, years of linguistic drudgery that the modern (including myself) cannot and will not put in. To today’s literary man, the cost is no longer worth the payout. But I do not say this is all his fault. He is hardly given the option, really. By the time we reach an age that would allow us to decide on a literary life, we have already developed habits of self-entertainment and make most of our choices based on the “fun scale.” We become pleasure junkies long before we know the drug exists.
Imagine Dostoyevsky staring with dead eyes at a laptop in his study, a blank page on his desk and a smart phone in his hand. Yes, he would eventually scratch out fifty or sixty thousand word books between trips to his blogs and his shows. They would probably be great books with philosophical and literary value, but they would not be The Brother’s Karamazov—rather, weaker, diluted, confused versions of his masterpieces. Plugged-in-Dostoyevsky’s books would read like, well, modern books.
And that is my beef with the modern book, not that the author has any less natural talent than those of yore but that he has not developed that talent and cannot, unless he has been raised in some micro house in the wilderness. When a young literary person ninety years ago arrived home after a day of work, his options for evening activities were simple: read, write, walk, idle, sleep, correspond, entertain, or go out. Today, he is deluged in options—drowned in options all flowing to him through two cables: the coax cable (one of the more appropriate names for any technological device, for what has been more maliciously coaxing to young men of our age than the coax?) and the Ethernet cable (also perfectly named; the ether dulls the senses; the ethernet dulls the conscience). Unless that young man has the willpower of the Joseph or the asceticism of a minor prophet, he will give into the siren song of pleasure and will not develop his brain adequately to write brilliant books. Therefore, I believe the age of masterpieces has come to an end and will only return when the age of entertainment options dies away. Our technology has outstripped our wills, and we read the consequences on all the “new releases” bookshelf every day.
As I write this polemic essay I am conscious of my own failures as a student and a writer. I deleted my internet browser, but I cannot remove the memory of hundreds of mornings, afternoons, and evenings wasted on some easier, more pleasurable means of passing the time than reading, writing, or reflecting. At 26, Charles Dickens had published three novels and a 688 page book of London sketches. At 26, I am thirty thousand words into one measly novel.
A few nights ago I went to exercise in an old limestone stadium in my town. For some unknown reason, the field lights had not been turned on, and it was dark. The only lights were far off streetlights and floodlights from campus. I had supposed upon my arrival to find myself alone in the old stadium, but I found to my surprise a whole host of other exercisers moving silently in circles around the field and up the stadium stairs. The dim light gave me the impression they were floating like diligent ghosts on their rounds, for I could only see them by their white clothing. In the hour I spent carefully feeling my way around that field and up those stairs, none of the ghosts around me spoke—only carried on mournfully and silently. I caught the spirit of the moment and solemnly went about my routine. But as I exercised with the faceless around me, I began to feel a mystical connection with them. Because I could not see their faces, I began to imagine I could see their souls, limbering themselves up for the Day of Judgment with ghostly leaps and bounds. For a few magical minutes I had lost the option of seeing my fellow exercisers’ faces and I saw their souls—or at least remembered they had them.
Perhaps I’ll learn to see the soul of my phone with is browser removed. I’m only afraid I’ll find it black as that night in the stadium.
R. Eric Tippin
Gray Gables, the grandest estate in South-Central Kansas
July 5, 21014
Brandon M. Schneeberger's Desk in the Ole Midshipman
Taken by the Author