February 21st, 2010


Edison's Eve: What's the Deal With This Book?

Two of the three books I've most recently read have made mention of Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, by Gaby Wood. I suppose, then, that I should read it, as it must be significantly relevant to my current reading interests. Sadly, the library system does not have this book.

I am hesitant to spend money to purchase yet another book to add to my mountains of possessions. Additionally, I find that I am much less likely to read a book that I purchase compared to one that I borrow from the library. I think the library books have more immediacy, in the form of a deadline. Books that I own will always be here.

Despite my misgivings, I tracked down and placed an order for the least expensive edition I could find, a used paperback copy for a sum total of $6.98, including shipping, from an Amazon.com affiliated seller. My plan is to quickly read the book upon its arrival (in about six weeks, probably, as it will be shipped media rate, which means it will head to Hawaii by land and sea rather than by air) and then donate it to the Friends of the Library book sale.

Seven dollars is less expensive than seeing a movie, and reading a book takes longer (for me, anyway; my reading speed has declined steadily over the past several years) than watching a movie, so from an "entertainment cost analysis" point of view, I suppose the expense is not inordinate.

Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age

"During a two-week stay in Norway, my daughter, then aged thirteen, called home one day by cell phone from a mountaintop. My husband thought at first she'd been hurt, but she simply wanted him to resolve a midhike teen debate about some Beatles' lyrics."

For me, this passage pretty well sums up the worldview of author Maggie Jackson as expressed through her recent book, Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. The book is filled with anecdotes, several of them personal, about people who blithely jet-set around the country and the world on a whim: a woman who flies to Italy for the weekend to run in a marathon with a friend from London; college professors meeting for lunch having just returned from international conferences; a group of friends who fly to Maine for a "weekend of restaurant hopping"; or 500-mile day trips to "do lunch."

The 500-mile lunch journey was one of the author's excursions. She used it to illustrate how blasé she claims our culture has become about travel; when she mentioned to persons she encountered that she was traveling 500 miles to meet for lunch, she claims she received no response from the cab drivers or ticket agents with whom she shared this information. Jackson interprets this as indicative of a culture in which long journeys have become commonplace.

As a commonplace nobody myself, I would interpret the silence with which Jackson was met differently. Some people have to work for a living. I'm sure the cab driver put in at least 500 miles that day. The difference is, he was working, covering the same airport or train station loop again and again, day after day, barely making enough of a salary to pay his bills and keep a roof over his head. A 500-mile day trip to meet for lunch is not an option in his world. The cab driver had two options for responding to the perky gloating of Ms. Jackson: ignore her, or punch her in the face.

Jackson seems to think that America, or at least the America that is the audience for her book, is a world of "doing lunch" and trips to Europe; a life of academe for the professionally accomplished and casual first-date sex for young cyber-savvy adults. It would be difficult to count which she references more, airport lobbies or trips to MIT. In her world, all young people are enrolled in college and most adults are connoisseurs of fine cheeses (which, of course, they make special trips to purchase and consume in the country of origin).

Overwhelmed by the trappings of the author's world, I lost focus on the gist of her argument. Indeed, beyond what she states in her title, I don't feel Jackson made an effective effort to restate or clarify her position; nor did she, in her rambling, anecdotal travelogue, present a convincing case for her argument. Dark age or not, jetting to Italy to run a marathon, spending a spur-of-the-moment weekend restaurant-hopping in Maine, and meeting hot, willing chicks over the internet, while a bit decadent, hardly sounds like a society on the brink of collapse. It requires a fair amount of orderliness to keep both airlines and internet dating sites running. We're still a long way from a grim, Pythonesque "bring out your dead" scenario.

The book includes heavily documented endnotes. A digression into the history of the fork as an eating utensil was interesting. Overall, however, I found the book alienating. Jackson is not writing about my world. I see, too, that I am the first person to borrow Distracted in the two years the book has been on the shelves in the Hawaii State Library System, which suggests that the all-encompassing "we" she uses throughout her text is more than a little myopic in scope.

Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) by Maggie Jackson.