One of the central tenants of my life is that I want to get as much rigorous mental activity as I can. I came to this organically the summer before I got my first teaching job. I had just finished graduate school and was living off what remained of my student loans. I had a lot of time on my hands and I started reading like I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate (I am fond of quoting the following numbers: during my last semester at Washington University, I averaged about 1000 pages of reading and 10 pages of writing per week). In the evenings, I was working on the first draft of what would eventually become Lonely Human Atoms.

As the summer passed, I started to notice something. Nights I spent watching TV or sloughing around on the computer, I felt lethargic. When I spent my time reading and writing, I had energy. I was much happier. Slowly, TV subsided from my life. Aside from baseball, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, I don’t watch TV at all. Instead, I read and I write.

This post is mostly about what I read. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I don’t read crap. I read mostly literary fiction, some fairly weighty nonfiction, and a smattering of poetry, plays, memoir, etc. In fact, I disdain that which does not aspire to be literary in some sense because I don’t believe there is much use in things that do not challenge us.

More and more I am being proven right. For sometime, there have been studies showing that reading fiction teaches a person empathy, but they include all fiction. Twilight gets lumped in with Great Expectations. That never felt right to me.

Recently, there has been new research showing that reading about something is not – as far as your brain is concerned – appreciably different from experiencing it. This is where the literary triumphs. Literary writing is that which is most vivid, which most pulls at our intellect and our emotions. It is that which provides us with the most memorable experience.

And more people need to get on board.

There are people – my mom, sadly is one of them – who do not like to think. Or who insist that they think plenty during the day. (“I don’t want to think after work,” was always my mom’s answer when dad and I tried to get her to not watch mindless TV in the evenings.) I think there is something wrong with this.

I can, perhaps speak with more authority now that I am a teacher. Not because I have special knowledge of learning, but because I have a job that taxes me mentally all day. There is no down time (or very little) and when I get home, I still push myself. I still read good books. I still try to write good posts and beautiful fiction. I do not let myself checkout. I keep my brain on.

I force this rigor on myself because I know that I am better for it. I am happier. I am more thoughtful. I am, frankly, smarter when I spend my free time challenging myself instead of checking out.

But there is another level. You might even call it a moral level. Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Learning is a form of action. Reading – and gaining experience through reading – is a form of action. One of the primary problems in American society is the uneducated electorate. Certainly, many people have never been given the chance at a decent education, but many more have simply chosen to check out when they get home from work. Why? Because it is easy. Because it takes effort to get going on a book when you spent all day doing whatever it is you happen to do all day.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mental time off. Everyone needs that. I’m saying it is a mistake to have your extracurricular life be about nothing other than leisure. Leisure is great, but it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve known several people who spent their lives doing not-very-much engaging outside of work and then retired to find themselves with nothing to do and no outlet for mental stimulation.

An article in The Atlantic recently has caused a bit of a stir. The writer asserts that everyone needs to start reading literary fiction at least 30 minutes a day because it will make you a better person. She’s right. It will. Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

Screen Time

July 13, 2009

I have been having a pretty sharp internal debate lately that involves several things that are not seemingly all related. It involves the internet, fatherhood, my childhood, Simone’s forthcoming childhood, technology (specifically the internet), writing, daydreaming, Taoism, and general creativity. To go ahead and cut straight to the point, I have resolved to drastically reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer to one recreational hour a day. I’ll go over why and what exceptions there are below, but let’s go ahead and start with that premise before I get to the rest.

Time & The Internet
I spend a lot of time on the internet. A lot. As much as I internally look down on people who fritter away time in front of the television (we watch movies, but haven’t watched an actual television program since the Oscars), I fritter away a great deal of time myself. Most of it visiting the same ten or twenty internet sites over and over again through out the day. There are days when I probably spend four hours doing more or less nothing on the computer.

Time & Fatherhood
Obvious statement: Being a parent takes a lot of time. I am determined to be an available parent. This means that, as much as is humanly possible, I will play with my daughter when she wants to, I will answer questions when she has them, etc., etc. This also means that I figure to have a fair bit less free time for the next fifteen or twenty years (whenever, that is, she and her theoretical, but likely, sibling have become largely self-sufficient individuals and the role of parent has become less god-like and more guidance). So, I have to ask myself, when I have time to myself, what do I want to do with it?

Free Time & Accomplishment
Playing the guitar. Reading a book. Writing something (I would still like to publish books eventually). These things require time. What is more, they require effort. They are not as easy as picking up the computer to check on the status of Jay Bruce’s broken wrist. Interruption (now an integral part of my life) is more irritating when I am doing things that require mental energy. However, I would be lying if I tried to claim that I didn’t get much, much more enjoyment out of reading, writing, and making music than I do out of random time wasting on the internet. Correspondingly, it seems logical, as my free time is going to be diminished for a long time, to spend it in the ways I find the most gratifying and relevant. It could end there, but it doesn’t…

Daydreaming, Childhood, and Creation
I might never have come to this decision if not for a bit of what my friend Justin would call synchronicity and what I would call my mind looking for answers and finding them. Over the last several days, I read this article by Michael Chabon, this one about technology and creativity (hat tip to Mike), and started reading this book by Michael Pollan. Individually, they probably wouldn’t have led to anything, but in combination, they reminded me of some things: 1. Daydreaming was an integral, wonderful part of my childhood. 2. I have been sorely missing it lately. 3. I want my daughter to have a childhood where daydreaming is encouraged, and I want her to see that her father values it. I want to set an example. 4. If I am honest with myself, I know where the daydreaming has gone.

Making a Change
So here we are. I am going to attempt to change a habit. It’s not something I do often, but I am going to set a limit on myself of one hour a day which will likely be most often apportioned into half an hour in the morning and an equal amount of time in the evening. I want to be clear, however, that this is not a limit on computer time. The following do not count toward my recreational surfing:

1. Writing – I write on computer. I do not like to write by hand, and, with my bad shoulder, it isn’t enjoyable anyway (writing includes blogging).

2. Correspondance – I’m not talking about commenting on status updates on facebook, but I do keep up with several people mostly through the internet. I don’t consider corresponding with these people to be the sort of recreational time wasting I am trying to cut back on. So, if I am writing a genuine message to someone that takes a bit of thought and consideration it doesn’t count any more than it would if I were writing someone a letter by hand.

3. Research – I don’t expect this to come up all the time, but I do use the internet to research teaching methods or topics relevant to what I am writing about at the time. This does not include going to wikipedia to look up Michio Kaku‘s biography.

4. Radio, podcasts, etc. – I like to listen to baseball games on the radio (for example). The best radio I have is my laptop. So, if I am listening to a game or whatever else but not otherwise interacting with the computer this time would, obviously, be exempted.

I think I have already explained why, but I do want to close with a story about the moment when I really made this decision. Today, the weather is very nice and Cate and I took Simone to a park for the first time. We found a shady spot under an big, beautiful river birch near a creek. We had a snack, read books, and played with our child. At one point, I gazed up through the tree considering the twisty white branches that are the river birch’s trade mark and my mind began to wander. I had a little daydream. Maybe it will be a story and maybe it won’t. But when my mind came back to the present I smelled the air and noticed the warm spot on the back of my neck where the sun had poked through the leaves. “I could stand for more of this,” I thought.

Spring Break Hodgepodge

April 5, 2009

I am at the tail end of the tail end of spring break now, and I feel much better than I did going in. I only have eight weeks of school to go and this is most releaving. I may end up taking the last week of school off though as the pushing back of the end of the year due to our various natural disasters at put it awfully near Cate’s due date. I have enjoyed teaching much more this year than last year, but I will be very glad for the eight or nine weeks of summer I stand to get.

It was my goal to finish the second draft of the Charles Burden book this week, and, well, I failed at that, but I did finish the editing process. Now, it’s just a matter of going through and making all the changes, which shouldn’t take that long if I make myself work on it several nights a week. I’m very pleased with the book over all. I think it’s much better than Looking for Elysium. I suppose this makes sense as second novels are supposed to be better than first novels. I will be interested to here what people have to say about it when I distribute copies to my handful of trusted readers. The only part I’m not looking forward to is making the copies as Kinko’s is freaking expensive.

Baseball season starts tomorrow. I am not optimistic as the Reds’ management seems intent on continually making asinine decisions. I am looking forward to going to games though. We may make it to a Bats game as early as this weekend if the weather is nice enough and Cate and I will be going to Cincy for a few games early next month. It’s our last little getaway before Simone arrives and we spend the next several years with no free time.

I am still waiting to here from some graduate programs. It’s getting late in the game and they really need to let me know. The process always drags out like this though, and it will resolve soon enough.