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Evading Noise, Finding Company

C.S. Lewis
In Shadowlands, a movie about the life of C.S. Lewis, the renowned writer and professor says we read  "to know we're not alone."

I believe this is the truth behind scrolls, books, and the printing press. Perhaps it is not the whole truth behind the creation of their content. Perhaps the truth behind that is that we write and record because we believe we are not alone. How else could we explain the insistent calling to share what we know, to leave it behind for another to discover?

We also read to learn, but I believe Lewis's insight stands behind most reading-to-learn. Whether reading to learn, escape the daily grind, or travel toward wisdom, back of it all we sense that the learning, entertainment, escape, or journey comes from someone else somewhere else. This may also explain why I feel that a room which holds many books welcomes, comforts, and reassures me. (This assumes books with good and honest content. I wouldn't find books by Hitler or Lenin of comfort. On the other hand, if I read even those books with powers of reason engaged, I can learn a great deal. And, not being alone also means living in a world where not everyone is someone we want to live with.) 

The urge to not be alone remains pristine, as primitive and pure as ever, while the digital world has changed the ways in which we can "not feel alone." We can read constantly online. Long-distance phone calls and texts are free, once we settle on a phone plan. We can carry movies, music, and the worldwide web on a four-ounce phone that works even in many a wilderness. We can ease the awkwardness of eating alone in a restaurant by staring at that phone. We can even ease the awkwardness of conversing with a friend or family member at that same restaurant by staring at a phone. We've all seen a table of four, everyone's gaze glued to their phones, no one speaking to each other in--as we've come to call it--"real time."  We hail the interactive, but do we really know what it means to interact means any more? 

I spent very little time watching television until I moved overseas in the mid-1990s. I lived in an isolated spot with very little financial means. Lonely does not describe the situation. It felt more like prison. Phone calls, even local ones, incurred exorbitant expense, as did using the Internet at that time. Television, however, was free. And I watched a lot of it. I watched programs I would never have watched in the US, the best example being "Walker Texas Ranger." It showed a Texas landscape that was familiar to me, and Chuck Norris and company always solved everything by the hour's end. Watching it helped me escape and not feel alone, although it did nothing to effect a true change in that loneliness. The television habit stayed with me when I returned to the US, not for casual reasons. I faced multiple and great losses upon my return, and the television took me away from these for some stretches of time. (Think "Law and Order" marathons.)

Last night, I felt that urge again to bring in the noise of the television. To feel that those witty, beautiful, interesting people were talking to me. They look straight at me. Surely they are talking to me, the stressed, reptilian part of my brain believes. 

After an hour, I turned off the television and turned to The Swerve, an amazing book by Stephen Greenblatt, where books play a central role in a great drama that came to affect us all. After reading awhile, I admitted myself into silence.

The longing for noise is often a longing for distraction, not interaction. This is less a statement on media, and more an observation on how the mind works, runs and runs away. How deeply ingrained, how thoroughly biological the desire to not be alone is. I do often seek noise. I often walk away from a book because it is difficult to enter a state of quiet thoroughly enough to read it. It's a good day for me to remember C.S. Lewis's words. A good day to remember I must be alone enough, quiet enough to enter the exquisitely interactive world of the book: to touch its pages, feel its heft in my hands, highlight a passage that touches my life, and let its author speak to me, just me, holding his or her words in just my hands. And then to see, to hear, to know that indeed I am not alone.


“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” —C. S. Lewis


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