When I was very young I could spend hours in one tiny corner of my bedroom reading…forgetting my surroundings, getting deeply lost in the story.
It’s a clichéd image, but one that holds true for anyone that’s ever fallen in love with a book. But nowadays, I find its very hard to keep my attention focused on one single thing. There’s always email/facebook to be checked, words to look up, another story or book that may be better than the one I’m currently reading, things to look up on Amazon, IMDB, wikipedia…the list goes on.
Reading becomes a trial of concentration…one more thing in the long list of things that jostle for my attention every second of the day that I spend in front of the computer. It’s not difficult to conclude that the internet can seriously deter me from being the productive reader I hope to be and maybe even make me stupid.
But it’s so hard to defend against it. Even as I write this post, I count 15 tabs that I’ve opened up all vying for a small part of my fractured attention. Which brings me back to the topic on hand…I’ve discovered that reading on a daily basis is difficult, because given so much choice, I becomes paralyzed—- a well-documented phenomenon that is described in the fabulous Radio Lab program on choice.
Today has been one of those mentally exhausting days where it took me an hour to even settle on something to read. I won’t bore you with the details of how I came upon my choice, but I finally landed on a short story by Steven Millhauser currently featured in The New Yorker, “Getting Closer“.
I love Millhauser’s ability to craft the entire scene and ambiance of a story with detailed minutia of everyday life.
In the picnic basket he can see two packages of hot dogs, jars of relish and mustard, some bun ends showing, a box of Oreo cookies, a bag of marshmallows which are marshmellows so why the “a,” paper plates sticking up sideways, a brown folded-over paper bag of maybe cherries. All week long he’s looked forward to this day. Nothing’s better than setting off on an all-day outing, in summer, to the park by the river—the familiar houses and vacant lots no longer sitting there with nothing to do but drifting toward you through the car window, the heat of the sun-warmed seat burning you through your jeans, the bottoms of your feet already feeling the pebbly ground pushing up on them as you walk from the parking lot to the picnic grounds above the riverbank.
It makes me long for summer and to be a child again. The tension of the story comes from the young protagonist as he hesitates at the brink of the river waiting to begin his perfect summer day.
He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose something if the day begins. If he goes into the river he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you’re using things up. The day starts slipping away behind you. He wants to stay on this side of things, to hold it right here. A nervousness comes over him, a chilliness in the sun.
Like many other Millhauser stories…there is a sense of loss, of time slipping out of one’s grasp…a feeling of darkness that settles in long after those perfect summer days that we loved as a child. Millhauser’s protagonists grasp some inkling of this:
In a moment the day will begin to end. Things will rush away behind him. The day he’s been waiting for is practically over. He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere. It’s right there in the beginning. They don’t tell you about it. It’s hidden away in things. Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.
What begins as a nostalgic rumination of the perfect childhood day turns into something darker. All good things come to an end. As soon as we begin…we set into motion the end of things. As children we are unaware of this…but as we become older, as our lives become more complicated…as more time passes…we come to fully understand the implications of what that means.