Sometimes I’m sad for my children, who know only the digitalized world. Some of the greatest joys of my life are lost to them. When they fall in love with a writer, a composer, a director, or an actor, they will never have to go on a quest to find that missing book, recording, or movie. It will always be as close as the computer keyboard, or even the phone in their pocket.
My children will never have to wait, as I did, to read those Julian Green novels that couldn’t be found on the library shelves years ago, or to hear more of the obscure composer Gerald Finzi, whose music emerged one day from a car radio, never to be forgotten. Hardest of all was finding other films by French director Robert Bresson, whose Diary of a Country Priest, which I first saw on a reel-to-reel projector in my French professor’s basement, was so overwhelming.
What can’t be downloaded can be bought with a few clicks of the mouse and will arrive on your doorstep in less than a week. No need to go on an expedition, as I used to do, of used book and record stores in New York, Boston, D.C., and all the cities in between. I can still remember the thrill of finding the one Green novel that had eluded me, Then the Dust Shall Return, lying in a perfect dust jacket in the bottom of a box at a used book sale in Camden, Maine, at a Congregationalist Church on the Fourth of July.
I read that book and turned its pages as if it were a historical artifact worthy of a museum. The quality of my attention in reading Then the Dust Shall Return was directly in proportion to the degree of difficulty I experienced in finding it. The same was true when I finally found a recording of Finzi’s masterpiece, a setting of Traherne’s Dies Natalis, by tenor Wilfred Brown and conducted by Finzi’s son Christopher. That 1963 recording was rare and hard to find — but now I know of eight recordings, and all can be downloaded to my computer within a matter of minutes.
Those readers who have built libraries or amassed collections of the things they hold dear know that the era of pilgrimage is over. It’s no longer a matter of persistent poking around the dusty corners at a Salvation Army, or being the first at the curb for a local yard sale. Everything you are looking for can be found online, and usually for a lower price than it would cost to hunt it down elsewhere (especially with gasoline near $4 a gallon).
We neither have to look nor to wait — and the quality of our attention, as a result, has suffered greatly. The great mystic-philosopher Simone Weil often commented on the importance of waiting and attention to growth in spirituality. She wrote in her journals, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life,” and, “The highest ecstasy is the attention at its fullest.”
The easy access of a digitalized world has created such a glut of choices that the acts of reading, listening, and of viewing risk being vitiated by the awareness of what stands next in the queue. Multitasking eliminates the possibility of being transformed by these acts, to say nothing of being enraptured. We read, we listen, we watch, but we remain unchanged. Why? We didn’t give it the attention it deserved.
The answer is not to throw out our computers or unsubscribe from Netflix, but to recover the capacity for full attention — a capacity I will admit has been diminished in myself with the onslaught of all things digital. Not too long ago, after realizing I had watched one of the greatest films of all time while surfing the Internet, I knew things had to change. Nothing in the film had touched me; none of its images were present to my mind. It was if I hadn’t watched the film at all.
Yes, it was shameful, but I have taken steps to rectify the situation. No, I haven’t entered a twelve-step program for digital content addicts (DCA), but I recovered my capacity simply by doing one thing at a time. Wasn’t it Soren Kierkegaard who wrote a book titled, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing?