Is Literature The Antidote To Information Addiction?
“In books lies the soul of the whole past time: the articulate audible voice of the past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.” - Thomas Carlyle
Forget about the soft drugs, booze and sex. A new addiction in the West has taken a seductive hold on our mainstream. Information, and the devices we use to absorb it, inundate our lives like never before. Whether at work, a friend’s place for dinner or even on the sidelines at the kid’s Saturday sport – we have adjusted our lives to fit in our little information fixes.
It seems, though, that we've begun to realise that the way we used to do things is rapidly changing. China recently introduced a walking lane for texting. The big tech companies areadvocating meditation to employees in order to counter the ‘increasing sense of disquiet’ in our lives. The use of smartphones in the workplace is being debated.
However, whilst the latest smartphone upgrade is headline news and applauded by the digerati, is there enough debate about whether or not our technological advances are actually any good for us?
Much of our addiction to information is a casualty of that omnipresent word, “progress”. A word essentially defined as ‘the movement towards an improved place’. We encourage devices that are faster and bigger. We hunt continuously for better reviews; that perfect dress; the cheaper flight. We bounce around the internet searching for profound, insightful and educational content all neatly packaged in the minimalist of character counts.
Undoubtedly, our lives have become easier. We are more productive and have far more choice. However, alongside the gains, are we giving enough consideration to the things we risk losing?
And it is those little everyday interactions with our fellow humans that we’re allowing to slip. By burying our heads in handheld screens, we’re forgetting to watch, feel and learn with our eyes, ears, nose and hands. Observation and listening facilitates a healthy level of understanding and empathy. Body language, everyday manners and the verbal nuances handed down over generations are being subtly eroded.
The irony too is that these are the same skills that we should actually be sharpening. Looking at the workplace, Reed recently conducted a comprehensive study on what employees valued in a good manager. Being a good communicator topped the list.
We also communicate largely via email at work. Writing well can therefore give you an advantage. Indeed, being able to inspire, educate or persuade with writing is now a very powerful tool. An effective leader communicates with impact. Clear articulation gains respect and trust.
Sadly though, we have become increasingly lazy in our use of words, vocabulary and grammar. We now rely more and more on acronyms and emoticons to communicate. We talk more, we write more - but with less depth, less impact.
There is certainly a swathe of insightful content being created by some very talented people across the net. But let’s be honest – there is also a bucket load of crap. Seductive headlines often reveal questionable insights within a shoddily-written article. It’s no wonder our attention spans are diminishing.
DUST OFF THE LITERATURE
Classical literature on the other hand, is a real commitment. Often hundreds of pages long, a solid attention span is a prerequisite. Sometimes challenging, classical novels are rewarding and rich in their character descriptions and the thought processes of their heroes and villains. As well as entertaining us, they teach us that life can be as much about struggle as it is about that beach holiday we just posted those photos of on Facebook.
Written by people with a special gift to combine observation, intuition and articulation (as well as for creating a good story) – classic novels have been passed down the years. Numerous generations have considered their themes invaluable. Arising from diverse backgrounds, they bring to us perspective. They carry the same DNA as the tales our primitive ancestors shared around the tribal fire at night, aiming to protect and enlighten the family network.
Rarely too does the author of the classic explicitly reveal the core lesson. Rather than being told to you, the lesson reveals itself. The insights ooze from the pages rather than us reading them. We often find it hard to articulate precisely in words just what 'The Classic' has taught us. However, we feel the book’s importance. Weexperience its impression. They are slow burners which stay with us for longer. They tell us to look beyond the surface, to think more deeply.
Of course, there are countless novels that one could take lessons from. Therefore, thinking about a few of my own favourites:
As Truman Capote unwraps the broken-piece past of one of the murderers, Perry, in In Cold Blood – it becomes plain to the reader that this character has agonizingly never been able to fit in. Despite his horrific, ruthless crime - we listen to him, we’re sad for him, even perhaps understanding
‘Things are seldom what they seem’, is a theme of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The young aristocrat, Darcy, remains true to his ideals despite his pride which almost costs him true love. Introduced as the villain, his eventual humility endears him to us.
Santiago, in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, is a character with old age, experience and dogged determinedness on his side. The author flings us into his lead character’s tussle with the power of the natural order. An order we often have no control over
Pertinently in Frankenstein, Shelley explores ambition, new technology and the thirst for knowledge. The author develops reader empathy and sadness at the futility of the monster’s existence as well as its desire for love.
Of course, literature is by no means the silver-bullet solution to the challenges we face. But it is certainly a good place to start. A good novel can undoubtedly improve our writing skills, bestow human insight and bolster articulation. As we watch and listen less to each other, a time-honored classic may well help us to plug a little of this gap.
Devices will only become faster and more prevalent. The amount of information in our lives, and the temptation to be addicted to it, will only increase. We need a conversation about the healthiest way to live alongside it. We need to acknowledge it, continue to harness it, but ultimately – tame it.
Much of the content online today bombards us with the best ways to maintain a healthy body. Articles chat about the benefits of the latest antioxidant or superfood.
So – as you wrestle down your daily calorie count, spare a thought for the stuff that you’re feeding your mind. Put away your phone and watch people. Give your lover a kiss in the morning before reading an email. Sprinkle a bit of hearty literature into your life.
And who knows! It may just give you that little bit of stand-out in the workplace. But if anything, it will remind you just how intricate, layered and beautiful is this special house in which we live.