Susan Megna is a retired public policy administrator, educator, school board member, social worker, and advocate for quality child care. She is also the mother of three fully evolved humans. She is happy there is no retirement from that job.
Four years ago, I found my way to Marion Roach Smith’s memoir writing class at the Arts Center of the Capital District. I instantly fell in love with writing my own stories, and have been at it ever since. The class, now guided by Michael Welch, is a weekly forum for sharing essays with fellow writers. It feels like a mini, non-fiction knock off of "Selected Shorts,” and I have been inspired by, and have grown into a better person through, the stories discussed in class.
My idea of a memoir topic is anything that happened more than five minutes ago, a parameter that leaves my personal writing stage wide open. The keyboard is my tool to reflect on the landscape of my life and this huge, wonderfully messy world. I am happy that a few of my commentaries have been published by the Times Union and other local publications.
TL/dnr [Too Long/did not read]
By Susan Megna
A persistent memory from my childhood: Home alone, aimless, bored, I wander downstairs and choose a random volume of the black and gold-bound World Book Encyclopedia. Cozied down on the rug, I open the book. As I read the text and look at the photographs, I enter a portal - to Berlin, bobolinks, bullfights… to malamutes, mankind, microscopes… to rams' horns, Renoir, rice paddies.
Transported and soothed, my young mind makes discoveries, absorbs images of foreign things and places, and compiles background information that will help me to understand the complex texts of my future. From the living room floor, I am opening new windows (before personal computers made the opening of Windows a literal thing). I don’t yet know the words for it, but my brain is building a cognitive map of the world.
That 1960s edition of World Book Encyclopedia is long-expired (though the "grandmother of Google" still lies in state in boxes in the attic, awaiting suitable internment). Meanwhile, the digital world has evolved into an unimaginably superior descendant. We can call up seeming infinite sources of information, 24/7, from the palms of our hands, information capable of shape-shifting from static text and pictures into brilliantly multi-sensory, interactive formats. Miraculous!
Now, I start my days with coffee and iPad in hand, screen-skimming The New York Times and Albany Times Union Perspective section. I read a little about things going on outside my world (Generation Z, Brexit, gender fluidity, AI). I try to keep up with important global topics like climate change, human rights, the economy, politics and propaganda. In idle moments throughout the day, I look up You Tube how-to videos and peruse reviews of products I might need, books I might read, Netflix shows I might watch. I check the weather app and my bank balances. I scan for new postings on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
Perpetually alert to the ding, vibration, and blue light that signals more input, I tend toward mild fretfulness, very different from the pleasures of the World Book years. I am still transported by the wealth of information, but no longer feel soothed by it. My brain feels tired by the million disconnected snippets of information to be processed and absorbed. Where to file all that stuff in my 69-year old cognitive map of the world?
The New Yorker magazine arrives in my mailbox (relentlessly), and too often goes unread (while I browse through an internet article about soon-to-be-dropped films on Netflix).
“TL/dnr” = too long/did not read.
Is this another sad part of aging, I wonder? I have grown distracted, addicted to the stimulation of a constant input stream. But it’s not just me. Distraction is the new normal, for people of any age.
With lovely irony, I came to this awareness while reading an actual book (paper, hard-bound). Dr. Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World lays out the premise that human capacity for concentrated, reflective, deep reading, which has taken thousands of years for our brains to develop, might change in this small-screen-snippet-and-scan environment. Without noticing, we may be losing our ability to engage with the kind of big stories that bring us along - with the writer - from thought to thought, idea to idea, evolving our own thoughts and ideas in the process.
Wolf is an engaging narrator, sharing literary references and anecdotes as she builds her argument. As I read, I pause to look up the meaning of the word perspicacious on my phone. Five minutes later, I find myself reading a Consumer Reports article on five quick fix spring meals.
From the New York Times Book Review: “The author of Proust and the Squid returns to the subject of technology’s effect on our brains and our reading habits. This is an even more direct plea and a lament for what we are losing, as Wolf brings in new research on the reading brain and examines how the digital realm has degraded her own concentration and focus.”
Irrelevant to perspicacious, nor driven by a wish to improve my meal habits, a link to a rabbit hole had appeared before me. And, like any addict might do, I had jumped right down into it.
Another persistent memory, this one from my early adulthood: Door closed and phone unplugged, oblivious of my “should do’s,” I am utterly absorbed in a novel. Whether it was the world of Marjorie Morningstar or A Tale of Two Cities or The Hobbit, during those long, uninterrupted hours of reading, that world became my world.
I was an English lit major, and I can now see that all that reading, and writing, nurtured my capacity for analysis, inference, and empathy. It led me to become a smarter and better human. The time available for that sort of deep reading lessened as I grew busy with work and family, yet it was still a great way to take a break from life.
Now, Amazon and the public library offer near instant access to a wealth of stories - paper or electronic, new or classic, fiction or non-fiction, audio or large print. As a retiree, my time is once again mine, and there is plenty of it for lounging around, reading. But I notice that reading feels harder and less engaging than it used to, that I don’t focus as easily on the written words as before. It’s become more alluring to scan and skim than it is to sit still and lose myself in the twists of a story.
So I wonder about our bewitching digital world. Is it a good witch or a bad witch? True that the positives are unarguably vast. But we have also seen how the breadth and speed of the screen makes it easy for a self-serving few to manipulate big chunks of information, to their ends. We also see how that breadth and speed makes critical thought more elusive for many.
Maryanne Wolf, and other authors like Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), have opened my eyes to the ways that our reading habits are changing, and changing us. These authors hypothesize, analyze, infer, and draw preliminary conclusions on this important topic, sharing their findings in books.
I foresee much more deep reading in my own future. I think that despite my current attraction to distraction, I can rise to the challenge. It will take a little more discipline, a little more effort, and a little more time, but it feels well worth it.
And whenever I find myself stumbling, I will take the advice given by the wise author Anne Lamott in her newest book, Almost Everything: Notes of Hope.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”