First Chapters

That I am considering a digital reader for e-books is proof that I am not a Luddite.  In the last week, I have previewed Borders's Kobo Reader, Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Nobles's Nook, and even the more versatile IPad.  This has made me a readin' beast, folks!  I read at stoplights, at lunch, while waiting at the doctor's office, or in any other interstice of life!  So my conclusion is that I will actually read more books if I have one of these gizmos.  But this is not about the device but, rather, what I have read. 

Since I didn't want to buy any of these e-books yet, I sampled the free first chapters from a number of them.  In the past week I have read the first chapters of A.E. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (for its wonderful sound), William Stryon's Sophie's Choice (well-written if wrenching story, at least the movie was), John Piper's Think (haven't read much Piper, actually), George W. Bush's Decision Points (mildly interesting, but certainly not captivating or in one chpater terribly illuminating), John Powell's How Music Works (fun and informative and accessible), Beth Kephart's The Heart is Not a Size (previewed for my 16-year old daughter, and I liked it), Spencer Quinn's Dog On It (a detective novel told from the standpoint of the detective's dog, and that right there is enough to say about this funny book), and Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (wonderfully written WWII story by the author of Seabisquit)And I'm still at it.  However, it has led to some curious, shall we say, propinquities.

For example, I never knew that George W. Bush and Winnie-the-Pooh had so much in common: a perchant for the simple (and I mean it as a compliment).  I'll keep reading about Winnie-the-Pooh but will likely not continue reading George Bush's memories.  (I'll also pass on Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.)  Memoirs must be compelling to draw you in, and these don't seem to be.  Now Pooh --- you have to love him and his friends.

But when it comes to writing, by far the best here is Hillenbrand's Unbroken, as I was drawn in immediately in this first chapter as she tells about the coming of age of Louis Zamperini.  Who, you might ask?  A runner who grew up in Torrance, California during the Great Depression.  More than that I can't say (that's the problem with first chapters), but I want to read on.  That matters.

One good thing about reading so many books at virtually the same time is to get a sense of the different voice used in each.  In Unbroken, it's that of a sympathetic narrator; in Think, that of a kindly but thoughtful pastor; in Dog On It, that of a wiseacre dog (and it sounds so doggish you have to believe it); and in How Music Works, that of an entertaining college professor (part of a minority) who loves to teach.  And to hear the voice of a teenager, as in The Heart Is Not a Size, is to be drawn back to my own teenage years and remember, however vaguely, the not always pleasant intensity of everything that happened to me back then.

I never realized, or at least didn't remember, that one of the main characters in Sophie's Choice, Stingo, was a young editor at a book publisher, and his sometimes funny encounters make up a good part of the first chapter of the book.  That seemed overlooked or downplayed in the wrenching movie version about a Holocaust survivor's stark choice (played so well by Meryl Streep).  The comedy, believability, and emotion of this book also drew me in.

I hadn't sung "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" in quite some time, and yet John Powell had me doing it, under my breath, in a restaurant while reading How Music Works, wondering later how effective that technique was.  Piper might say that the purpose of reading such a book about music is "to study [its] reality as a manifestation of God's glory."  Powell may not have that perspective, but I sense a wonder in his prose.

First chapters, even first paragraphs, tell you a lot about a book.  It's important to start well, particularly in this era of impatience.  It's good to have these different voices and perspectives.  I like this dipping in and out of books, for a while at least, though I wonder about the long-term effects of such hop-scotch, of not finishing what I have started.

No matter.  I think I'll buy one of these things.  I'll wander in this land of literature for a spell, settling when I find a suitable resting place, surrounding myself with words that seem three-dimensional.  I just hope you're not behind me at the stoplight.  Be gentle on the horn.  I'm reading. 


The Presence of Our Absence

One of the most perceptive, non-kneejerk critiques of the technologies like Facebook that take and keep us online is made by Shane Hipps in a recent article in Relevant Magazine called "What's [Actually] On Your Mind?"  Quoting Marshall McLuhan, "we are what we behold," a pithy recognition of a nascent idolatry.  The technologies we use are "dramatically transforming our understanding of ourselves, our definition of community and our experience of God," he says.  The problem is that very few users are cognizant of the deep impact these technologies have on them. 

First, he references the exhibitionism of Facebook, our fascination with the image we project.  We are not so much who we really are but who we want others to think we are; a subtle narcissism takes hold.  As Hipps says, "we become creators and consumers of our own brand," carefully arranging photos, quotes, favorite books, music, and so on in a way that projects not just what we love but what we want others to think we love.  Is this cynical?  I don't think so.  I feel the pull of it myself.  I'd like you to think I am an intelligent, culturally-saavy Christian, one who reads books above himself, listens to artful music, reads a passel of hip blogs, and all in all knows a little about everything.  It's me, you see. . . or is it?  Is it just what I truly like or what I want to like or want to be thought of as liking?  Sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between the image of the beholder and the beholder, particularly when you are constantly checking yourself out.

He also points out how that while Facebook connects us to more digital relationships, it actually erodes our ability to form meaningful relationships in real life, particularly for the still developing egos of adolescents, some of the largest users of social media.  The technology becomes an obstacle to healthy developmental progress in young people.

And with Twitter, a technology that encourages us to externalize our every thought, "we create a condition of absence in a world that desperately needs our presence."  We are so very there, tweeting ourselves into every moment, and yet we are profoundly absent in any real sense. Impulsivity and impulsive thinking are encouraged.  I often tweet links to articles I find interesting, and yet I suspect few people take the time to actually read them.  We are moving too fast, our attention spans truncated by the breathless pace of of the instant thought.

The solution?  Hipps suggests a technology fast, the point being to find a way to gain enough distance from the technology so that you can perceive its effect upon you.  (I should note that this works with television as well.)  Not staring at your online persona for a while may help you notice who you really are --- what your real likes and dislikes, personality quirks, and genuine gifts may be.

Can you do it?  Are you afraid you'll miss something?  I have done it, and I guarantee you will not miss a single thing of importance.  As I told my boss one time, if it's that important, call me.  You know my number.

Till Twitter Does Us Part (A Short, Sad Story)


Larry knew that the world he once knew was gone when he received the divorce papers from his wife. Ripping open the envelope he found a sheet of heavy bond paper with a single paragraph headed by the word "Complaint" and a single, succinct paragraph: "She no longer loves you. She wants out. Irreconcilable. You can have the children. She wants money. See you in court. Signed, M. Kabinski, Esq." He did a quick count. 138 characters. Technically correct, but a bit cold, he thought.

He was having dinner alone, his PDA on the table beside him as he scrolled through the constantly updated feeds. Nothing from Cindy. Not one word.

He couldn't remember the last time he had a real conversation with Cindy anyway. He vaguely remembered lingering over meals and discussing all matters of things until the wee hours of morning, but as time went on and Twittering caught on, they began to simply tweet each other. "I'm enjoying the dinner." "Your mother tweeted me yesterday and said your father is ill. I'm sorry." As time went by the tweets got shorter and shorter. "More" was enough to send Cindy to the stove for seconds, or "Enough" meant change the channel on the TV. "Omit needless words," said Strunck and White in that archaic guide to the written word, and yet their words became hauntingly prophetic.

He had to admit that the Twittered world in which he now lived wasn't all bad. When politicians' stump speeches were limited to 140 characters, they could be endured. All their tweets went something like "Lower taxes. More spending on you. Actions, not words. Change. Hope. Vote for me." And by subscribing to their feed, it was able to pick up on the really important things, like what TV shows they watched, or what restaurant or cuisine they preferred. The constant connection made him feel like he. . . well. . . like he knew them, that they cared about him.

Even church was almost a drive-through affair. Let's see. . . there was a song, something like a revised doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, all creatures you know, Father, Son, and Ghost, heavenly host. Amen." And then a sermon tweet. The last one was refreshingly concise: "God made it all. We screwed up. He came down and fixed it. Trust Him and you can make it Home." He could chew on that for a week.

There were complaints, of course, when Twitter was made the national means of communication. Mostly from old folks who liked to go on and on and on about things. Talk about needless words! But most people bowed to progress. A quiet descended over homes and public places. About all you heard were the tapping of keys on PDAs, cell phones, and laptops, the people permanently bent over their screens, their bodies adapting to a new way of living.

Pushing back from the table, Larry threw the remainder of his TV dinner into the trash. He had lost his appetite. He went to bed, turning over and over in his mind that one phrase from the divorce papers: "She no longer loves you." "She no longer loves you." He fell into a fitful sleep, his Twitter still on, the feeds updating even as he slept. "I'm going to bed. Letterman is lame tonight."

In the morning when Larry woke up, he stretched his arm across the vacant half of the bed where Cindy used to sleep, and for a moment he held that vacantness. He stumbled to the bathroom. Seeing his face in the mirror, he mouthed the first word that came to his lips, "Cindy," but nothing came out. Was it possible he had lost his ability to speak? He tried again, harder, and this time heard the faint sound of his voice saying "Cindy," and yet it sounded like the voice of a stranger. He couldn't recall the last time he had spoken. He set down in front of his Twitter screen and reviewed his tweets. 648 overnight. The CEO of his company. Oh, he bought a new razor. The President. "Told Sec. of State not to wear that tie again. LOL." And then, scanning down the list, digesting the entries quickly, as he had trained himself to do, his eyes fell on the last entry. Cindy. Simply, "Jesus wept."

A tear rolled down Larry's cheek.

All A-Twitter


I'm listening to Bruce Hornsby's song, "The Valley Road."

I'm looking out my window at a beautiful maple tree covered in yellow and red Fall leaves.

Right now I'm wondering what I will eat for lunch, and how soon it will come.

I'm watching a hilarious spoof done by Tina Fey on SNL.

Do you really care that I am doing any of these things right now, at the moment I tell you? Does it matter? And isn't it presumptuous and even a frivolous waste of your time and mine for me to tell you?

That's the trouble with Twitter, that web-based application that asks the simple question, "What are you doing," and requires you to answer it in 140 words or less. What does it matter to someone else what I am doing, particularly if I can't elaborate on it? Twitter, a word that means "nervous excitement," is now used by over a million people who daily, or even hourly, post their answer (or "tweet") to that simple question, and by even more people who subscribe to their feed and receive updates on what they are doing via the web, by text message, or by email. It's a dynamic, ever-updating feed rolled out with a stream of consciousness ease, and many people seem to love using it.

Proponents tout how Twitter builds participatory community. A recent World magazine article recited the case of one evangelical church that had a "Twitter Sunday," projecting a feed from churchgoers onto auditorium screens throughout the entirety of their three services. Isn't that sort of like everyone talking at once? Is that what church is about? I'm not sure I want to attend a Twitter Sunday, with everyone hunched over their PDA or cell phone, immediately (and perhaps thoughtlessly) reacting to the music or sermon. Immediacy is the enemy of reflection, and in an increasingly distracted society, we don't need another diversion, another concession to our cultural attention deficit disorder.

Twitter may also pander to our exhibitionist and egotistical tendencies, in that we assume others will want to know what we are doing all the time, letting them see into our thought processes and daily activities. And for those who enjoy reading such mundanities, it can be vouyeristic, allowing people some satisfaction in peeking into the thoughts and habits of others. Furthermore, knowing that you are being "fed on," would you not have a tendency to play to that audience, perhaps passing yourself off as someone more engaged or thoughtful or whatever you perceive as positive when you are not. Is this kind of chatter really helpful? Do we really want to be a party to a person's deliberative process if we don't even know them? I thik the verdicts out on whether that kind of twittering is a cultural good, simply innocuous, or even damaging to real community.

All these are concerns, and yet I'm not a Luddite. Most, maybe even practically all, technology offers something useful. So how can Twitter be sued to stimulate thoughtful reflection? If it is a distraction, how can it be redeemed and made a holy distraction, something that would provoke us to think more deeply about something, that doesn't give us answers but makes us reflect on the questions life presents?

Along these lines, I'm trying a 30 day experiment. For 30 days I'll be twittering at least once, maybe more, each day. Only you won't be bothered with the mundane events of my day but will be receiving tweets with a provocative, Godward quote, a question about a Scripture, or a question about life. I'll also tweet you when I have posted a new blog entry that you may find interesting. Maybe it'll make you reflect for a minute about something more, about how the holy lurks in all the mundane events of your day. Only I can't quite call it Twitter. A better name would be Provocations --- prompts to thoughtfulness. Care to sign up? You can subscribe to my feed here. Let me know what you think!

[For more on how and why to use Twitter, check out Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's "12 Reasons to Start Twittering," here. He makes a reasonably good case for its use, though I always wonder about its unintended consequences. I also believe you could come up with "12 Reasons Not to Twitter," if you thought about it long enough, but I'll leave that to another day.]

More Questions About Blogging

Clip_image002_30A recent article by Alan Jacobs in Books and Culture, entitled "Goodbye, Blog," is provocatively subtitled "The friend of information, but the enemy of thought."  That about sums it up.

Jacobs, a blogger himself (both a contributor to and reader of blogs), laments the fact that his hope that blogs would revolutionize real discussion of real issues, in his words, that  "blogs could provide an alternative venue where more risky ideas could be offered and debated, where real intellectual progress might take place outside the System," has not been borne out.  That's System, capital "S", like the Establishment, man, the stifling academic or work environment where peer pressure and convention limits discussion of real issues.

Experience has proven otherwise, and Jacobs attributes that mostly to the architecture of blogs, to how the system is set up.  There's both the way commenting occurs, when it occurs, which limits real discussion because threads get lost, or the vitriolic debate and name-calling engendered because those who comment are usually anonymous.  (That's why I avoid commentary on political issues.)  The latter points to the unfortunate fact that blogs are completely public.  Anyone can comment, even idiots and those who are just downright mean.  Bottom line:  Blogs are great for news, but not much good for the development of ideas.  It happens, but not often enough.

His comments made me consider my own blog, but I guess what I have here is a bit different.  I'm open to comment but do not solicit it.  I'm not trying to start a discussion, though I'm open to it.  There's a little bit of information here, but more than that it is an exercise for me in writing about something everyday.  That's everyday.  That's difficult.  It's been a useful discipline for me.  The advantage over a more private journal is that as my thoughts are somewhat public, I have at least the sense of an audience, in theory if not reality.  That makes me think about what I write.  I think about clarity, spelling, and whether what I say might mean anything to someone other than me. 

But there's also a downside.  I hesitate to say some things, due to privacy concerns.  The form limits me from writing a longer essay and does not lend itself to the development of bigger ideas.  I guess the thoughts I express are just the kernels of those larger things which, maybe, just maybe, I'll get to one day.

Bottom line: This is good for now, for me, but whether I keep it up is an open question.  Stay tuned.

Bye, Bye Tactile Pleasures? (Are Books and CDs Obsolete?)

Apple 4 GB iPod Nano BlackA friend recently forwarded me a short article that appeared in a music business blog, Tripwire, entitled Jewel Cases Are for Old People, Consumers Embrace the Future.  As a collector of CDs, I was righteously provoked and had the same emotion I felt when told that the book was obsolete.  I don't believe it.  Yet, the author documents a meteoric rise in legal downloads of music, one which gives me pause.  Will CDs and books fade away?  If so, what do we gain, and what do we lose?  Well, here are my initial thoughts, under which lies a fair degree of ambivalence and caution because, as so many have documented (see Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, for one), every technological advance always has both beneficial and harmful consequences.

Except for collectors like me, I suspect that most consumers are not wedded emotionally to the CD.  Apple was able to develop a small, very cool, container (the ubiquitous IPod) for a large quantity of digitized music, and I think most will love their IPods or other MP3 players as much as or more than the library of CDs.  On the other hand, no such cool container exists for books.  Not that it hasn't been tried (the Rocketbook, SoftBook, etc., and now EReaders on various handheld devices), but none function quite like a book held in the hand.  (For the early history of such attempts, see the 1998 Wired Magazine article entitled Ex Libris.) There is a tactile pleasure in reading the written word -- in turning pages, smelling the ink, knowing the book has history, and being able to jot notes in the margins and quickly skim through it -- that has not been duplicated in a digital device.  Reading a book is a sensory experience; curling up with my Treo 650 just doesn't cut it. 

To some extent the same tactile pleasure is true of CDs, yet less so.  We may read the liner notes or relish the packaging, but the sensation is less acute than that of book-reading. Plus, CDs have been around a lot less time than books.  So they are less culturally embedded  My conclusion: the CD may well fade, but I doubt the book will leave us anytime soon, if at all.

But hold on.  We know the benefits of our IPod, more music with less space, but what do we lose?  For starters, many excellent artists will not be enjoyed because their work requires patience and repeated listening.  I have noticed my impatience when I listen to music online.  I'm in that internet surfing mode.  If it doesn't pull me in on the first listen, I will likely move on.  Why? Probably because I have less commitment.  However, if I spend the money to buy a CD, you can be sure I will listen through all the songs at least two or three times.  Some albums grow on you.  Some take time to decipher.  And when I spend the cash on it, I'm committed.  I will give it time.  Thus, digital downloading plays to our impatience and lack of commitment, which is not healthy. 

Call me Luddite, but I did part with LPs (though I still miss them).  Maybe I'll be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital music world, but I hope I don't have to. I want to listen to less, but listen more deeply.  I want to be loyal to an artist.  I want to give them a chance.  I want them to explore concepts that may take a whole album to develop.  I want my CD.  How about you?