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In the Age of Distraction
Joseph R. Urgo. In the Age of Distraction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. 182 pp.
Any book that begins "Maybe you should check your E-mail" has to be a good book, as I am an e-mail junkie. Yes, of course Urgo intends his first sentence to be ironic and not a command to a reviewer to put off, once again, writing her review for the seductive pleasures of e-mail. But irony aside, Urgo's book is a must read, as he responds to Sven Birkert's The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; as he criticizes the daily, hourly distractions that make us all feel busy, though we are thinking/accomplishing nothing; and as he invites us to participate in that conversation.
Perhaps this book seems particularly meaningful to me because I read it (after checking e-mail, of course) and savored its diatribes against constantly blaring televisions over Christmas vacation in someone else's home. There a television was, indeed, a constant presence in the primary living space, the only space with comfortable couches and good lighting. So I read Urgo's book on distraction while being constantly distracted by the damned television, sitting in an upright chair at a dining room table. Huffy. Indignant. Morally superior. Wondering how these people can possibly live like this. I was a primed audience for this book. [End Page 545]
But one does not have to be quite as primed as I was to appreciate what Urgo is saying in his compelling argument for the pleasures and distractions of old fashioned reading. Anyone should be able to appreciate this well-written monograph that demonstrates the value of the humanities in an age of technology. The kind of cultural work done by reading, Urgo argues, is vital to our very democracy because our nation was founded through texts, and these texts need to be continually interpreted for ideological consumption and political action. Thus, Urgo concludes, a liberal education (grounded in humanities texts) is alone the kind of education that will ensure a lifetime of "speculative, imaginative, responsive exploration" and that will allow us to stake a claim to cognitive territory "secure from the encroachments of digitalized colonization."
This thought-provoking book made me want to enter the conversation in two different ways. First, though Urgo writes several times that it does not matter what one reads, that his father, in fact, read such authors as Mickey Spillane or Harold Robbins, that it is the act of reading that liberates the self, his examples nonetheless suggest that content and style do matter. Whether he is writing about Willa Cather's or Faulkner's first person narrators or how Mary Rowlandson's ideology is exposed through her narratives, Urgo always chooses his examples from nonformulaic literature, from literature that makes us think, that stretches us to interpret. Does reading a thriller really help us develop critical interpretations? Doesn't popular fiction simply give us what we already want to believe? Isn't reading a thriller, then, comparable to playing video games (or checking e-mail)? Don't reading thrillers and playing video games both let us defy "socially expected acts of communal participation" in many of the same ways?
Second, Urgo begins his book explaining how, growing up in suburban New England, he would watch his father absent himself from the television room (and his wife and his two children) to "to go bed to read for awhile." He writes that saying "no" to that room was necessary for his father (and then for him) to be able to create a private, internal imaginative life. I have been haunted by this image and Urgo's metaphoric language surrounding it. When leaving his television room for the first time, Urgo writes: "generations of boys before me, standing with their fathers over some animal just killed [. . .] must have had the feeling [End Page 546] of entering some equally sacred, human tradition. We weren't hunters. We...