Rendered Fat Content


Édouard Manet: Woman Reading (1880/81)

" … successful distraction might disrupt anything, even distraction itself."

I am a cog in an enormous machine every bit as threatening as the much-feared Military-Industrial Complex. I might label mine The Non-Military Conscientious-Objector Complex because of my background with the military draft, though my complex has little to do with military matters. Mine's all about conscience, conscientiousness, and consciousness, three similar words with enormously different meanings. These three terms share at least one thing in common, which might be, without stretching their native definitions or attempting to create controversy or conspiracy, Reading. I read because it's always the right thing to do. I can never go astray if I'm reading. I also read so that I might live well. I believe it's impossible to live well unless surrounded by books. I also read to achieve the awareness required to comprehend this life. I consider it my moral and civil duty to at least try to remain literarily current.

My occupation feeds this machine.
As a writer, I post some additional content every morning. I do not engage in this work because the machine is necessarily lacking or starving for fresh content. I do this for more complicated reasons. With over four million books published last year and more coming this, the N-MC-OC seems in no real danger of starving for content. Quite the opposite. It suffers from a glut into which no person could ever hope to make even a modest dent. We choose our content by haphazard means; however systematically we might search, for the territory seems too vast to explore more rationally. I primarily choose my content by habit and synchronicity, for Reading remains the last domain where happenstance enjoys real traction. I need not know an author or a topic to stumble upon an enjoyable volume. I smother in delightfully impossible choices from which I exclusively select, punctuated by a few old familiars' fresh works. (I'm looking at you, James Ellroy and Richard Russo!)

The problem is, though, I'm reading less. As one writer reported, it started with the pandemic lockdown when I became obsessed with checking the status of the world. I'd start reading only to find myself strangely attracted back to my smartphone, where I'd check for updates. I fondly remember days when I never once felt the need to check the current status of anything. Perhaps the world spins faster now. Indeed, the news cycle never stops spinning, creating disturbances in the gravity field where reading resides. One cannot possibly read an entire volume of anything while continually checking out for updates on the exterior situation. Reading resides in a world of its own and cannot coexist with any such insistent machine constantly calling one's attention back and back and back again and again. I post to this distraction machine and have even found a loyal audience there. Still, I find myself too distracted some days to properly focus on what I post, let alone fulfill my conscience, conscientiousness, and consciousness duties. I exist partly in a distancing trance.

I persist. I continue writing even if my Reading has been temporarily disrupted. I pray this disruption temporary, for my backlog of to-be-read books continues growing, and I feel hopeless in its face. I have not forgotten my exile days when I maintained my sanity by visiting the library and reading three fresh titles each week. If writers write, they first read, for reading was how they learned how words properly fit together. Reading provided an education no professor could ever design, for it could only occur preconsciously, surreptitiously sneaking in behind the plotline. While suitably distracted, synapses retracted and realigned, shaping the mind a writer must possess to successfully produce anything. Ironically, the writer feeds back into that complex that initially fed him, maintaining the most circular ecosystem imaginable.

Except the Reading part seems threatened by the usual villains: modernity, technology, and distraction. It was always the same. Our ancestors carried precisely these complaints, or at least everyone who lived through interesting times did. Life itself seems to serve as a major distraction from living, and the individual has always been the chief threat to the quality of their own existence. The cheap and tawdry attracts attention in ways that nothing truly nourishing could ever successfully challenge. I must almost mimic a monk to accomplish anything useful or long-lasting. Days when we put up fresh produce seem like we've gone retro, performing a play depicting bygone days rather than inhabiting our unique time in history. Maybe the key to conquering The Complex involves just such transcendence. I appreciate and understand that I'm unlikely ever again to keep my smartphone anywhere but ready-to-hand. Still, I can sometimes successfully distract myself into at least an analog of my necessary troika: conscience, conscientiousness, and consciousness. If I reframe Reading as a distraction, I might find the traction to engage in it again. In any economy dependent upon attracting attention, successful distraction might disrupt anything, even distraction itself.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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