"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pining for the Good Old Days

I've been sitting and writing essays all day, listening to a bit of music, doing my laundry. But just now I've been distracted by my neighbors.

At first I just heard a voice drifting out their open window and in through mine. I thought they might be watching TV, until I noticed the speaker was a British guy. How nice, I thought - someone else likes British things as much as I do, and given how long this guy is holding forth without interruption, maybe it's a radio show. I've mentioned my fondness for BBC radio on this blog before, so you can imagine I was quite tickled by the idea that they might be fellow radio aficionados.

But after another minute of listening, the guy said the word "literally" a few times, groaned in frustration, and mentioned a stupid way of pointing out that it's snowing - so it turns that they're watching Alex Day reading Twilight on YouTube.

I'm slightly pleased with this result of my eavesdropping, because it's nice to have a familiar voice wafting around the courtyard while I edit my essay. On the other hand, I'm a little disappointed that the voices I recognize come from YouTube videos and not from the radio, which is the sacred home of recognizable voices. I think a great speaking voice is a wonderful and attractive feature in a person, but often it gets overwhelmed by physical appearance, since that's the primary thing we pay attention to and remember about a person. I like radio shows and books on tape because you can take a great voice and let your imagination run with it, creating the ideal person to match it.

Incidentally, I think it's a bit the same with reading - you can conjure up whatever author's persona you like to enhance the reading experience. The most common thing I tend to do when I'm reading is imagine the author as a shadow twin of the narrator. It gives the whole thing a very immediate and personal flavor and holds out the tantalizing possibility of getting more of the story from the author's biography. I've learned from writing workshop classes that this is usually an entirely false impression, but it's so strong that I've heard a student in a workshop critique call the protagonist of another student's story by the student author's name instead of the protagonist's.

I wonder, though, if this was an issue before modernism and stream-of-consciousness and semi-autobiographical first novels hit the scene. And I wonder if it will continue to even be possible to imagine someone differently from how they are, now that everything is televised and audio-visualized and authors rarely live in quiet obscurity and young people don't listen to the radio.

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