Above The Timberline
by Wayne Mergler
ANCHORAGE, AK—(Weekly Hubris)—12/20/10—Now that the Christmas season is here again, I am forced anew to take a good, hard look at myself. It is time, I fear, to come out of the closet, to confess my awful secret. I get this way at Christmastime, when I am shopping for my grandchildren and for friends, when I want to give them all something of myself, something that says me, something that—if I am truly honest with myself—none of them would ever want.
So I need to just confess, to come to terms with it all, to stop living the lie. So—here goes:
I am a Luddite. I am not just a Luddite. I am like the King of the Luddites, a creature so misplaced by time that he sometimes flounders in his own world, a stranger in a strange land. And that is never more obvious to me than at Christmastime, when I am browsing in stores among all the alien gadgets and contraptions that pass now for the latest cool stuff.
For those of you not necessarily up to date on your archaic (and probably totally irrelevant) British history, a Luddite was a person (named for a Mr. Ludd) who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rebelled against the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution.
They were, in short, opposed to new technology, to machines, to inventions that seemed to them to be taking jobs from real live human beings and to be changing humanity in the process.
Now, mind you, I have no interest in boycotting the use of the cotton gin or the internal-combustion engine. I am a modern, contemporary, fast-lane, cutting edge kind of Luddite. The word now has come to mean anyone who dislikes or opposes or is frustrated by the sudden onslaught of new technologies; i.e., those who fear computers, cell phones, text messagers—all that stuff that has so suddenly and completely taken over our culture and sucked the life out of our children.
Well, I am one of those.
Oh, I try to hide. For years, I have been in the quiet, book-lined closet. For years, I have oohed and ahhed appropriately when someone showed me their new iPod or their new cell phone that does more in a nanosecond than the most prominent Renaissance Man you can think of, but I never, for a moment, felt like oohing or ahhing. I felt like running away.
I think I learned to master my blasé face when I was teaching high school kids. There is an I-am-not-going-to-show-any-shock-or-surprise face that most teachers learn to present to their students. For years, I listened to them telling me the most shockingly detailed intimacies of their adolescent lives (and those of their parents) without showing an iota of shock or emotion though, inside, my eyes were bulging out of their sockets.
Also whenever a teenage mother would bring her out-of-wedlock baby to school to show off its cuteness, I was always able to ooh and ahh and do the appropriate coochie-coos, even though inside I was recoiling with horror that Lolita had reproduced at 15 and was downright proud of it! So. I suppose it is only natural that now I am good at pretending to care about your latest gadget, your Kindle or Nook, your iPhone with all of its amazing apps, your digital camera that may well someday cure cancer. But inside, in my closet, I am just depressed. And growing more so now that I am fossilizing into irrelevant old age.
I am a relic of the past. Not so much because of my age, but because I have always been a relic of the past. Literature and history are my things and, perhaps, I have always taken them to extremes in my devotion to them.
For the first 56 years of my life, my corporeal body was living and growing and thriving in the 20th century but, in truth, the real me, the one in the closet, was living in the 19th. Now it is the 21st century. I am not quite sure how this has happened but, somehow, I am still in the 19th, so I am now TWO centuries behind.
Yet, I have been happy in my 19th-century redoubt. My favorite books and writers are Victorian—Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Austen, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Hawthorne. I can lose myself in the literature of that period and never come out. My favorite contemporary books and movies are usually set in the 19th century, or in even earlier centuries. Any period piece with costumes and horses that transports me back to another time and place is great by me. (I know what you are thinking: with today’s computer technology—CGI—I can be transported quickly and easily to those other times. Yes, and I love that. I love that just the way I love penicillin and heart transplants and other things that technology has done to help us. I am only a Luddite of values.)
But, unlike almost everyone I know, particularly young people, I am drawn to anything old and of the past. I love antiques. I love ancient buildings. I love fustiness. As a kid, I was much more attracted to the Old than to the New. I never built model planes or cars, like other boys did; I collected models of horse-drawn buggies and buckboards and covered wagons. I always wanted a horse and carriage, not a car. I used to pretend that my bicycle was a pony and I rode that pony all over the paved city streets of urban Cleveland, imagining that they were dusty country roads and that I was fleeing from marauding Indians. A drive in the family car with my parents was always a stagecoach ride for me; I was in the back seat, in the coach; my parents, in the front, were the driver and guard. (And, yes, I am well aware of what a strange child I was; you don’t need to write me letters.) I never wanted to be in the Here and Now. I always wanted to be There and Back Then.
So, imagine me now. I try to adjust and sometimes I can do it, but this new world of technology changes so fast and so furiously that I am often exhausted and demoralized just browsing at the mall. Christmastime is the worst. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. I am a Christmas Person. You know, Charles Dickens and all that. I love the snow. I love the bells and the few horse-drawn sleighs that jingle about the city only at this season.
But a Holly Jolly Christmas filled with Nooks and Kindles and iPods and God knows what other noisy bleeping things is so not my idea of Christmas.
And so, my dilemma. I have eight grandchildren. I adore them all and they are all truly quite adorable. But they are 21st-century people. Therefore, they are somewhat alien to me. The youngest is only five years old and so he is still relatively easy. A simple toy or a book is fine by him. He is still young enough, close enough to the angels, to have not yet been destroyed by demon technology. But the other seven grandkids run the gamut of ages between 11 and 17. They are all in high school or middle school, and their demands are cruel and specific. They want technology. They want cell phones, they want iPods, they want digital cameras, they want gadgets and doodads and things that go bleep-blip-blop in the night.
I don’t dare give them my favorite of all gifts—a book—unless, of course, it is in the form of a Kindle or a Nook. If they can download, they are in paradise! It’s not that I am too stupid to understand these gadgets. I get it; I really do. It’s just that I don’t like it.
I understand all the ecstatic arguments in favor of the Kindle. I admit it’s tough to beat. The Kindle does everything. And even those of us who don’t want a Kindle, who would rather DIE than read a book via a Kindle, have to admit that we cannot refute or argue against its merits. Yes, it does everything; it even makes the print bigger for those old eyes that are failing. It’s superb, supreme, glorious! I get it! But I still hate them.
I hate them for reasons that no technophile will ever understand. Something about a Kindle or a Nook seems to zap the soul of a book. I know, I know, you love your Kindle and you don’t agree with me at all. I get that, too. But it seems to me that there are two kinds of book people. There are those (most people, in fact) who love to read. They love to read so much that they will read anything in any form: they will read cereal boxes, magazines, graffiti on walls, scrolls, and Kindles.
And then there are the weird few who just simply love books. They love the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they crackle when you open them for the first time; they love the paper, they love it even more if it is beautiful, if it has gilded edges, if it has illustrations, illuminations. There is, in the mind of these people, nothing, absolutely NOTHING more beautiful or more noble than a book.
I am, alas, one of those. I love to read, but if I can read it in the form of a beautiful book, with lavish illustrations and leather bindings, my reading experience is enhanced greatly. And if it is an old book, a second- or third-hand copy, with notes in the margins that some other reader may have written there a hundred years ago, I am enthralled. I am connected to that reader of long ago. We have, over the decades and centuries, managed to connect, to communicate, to share a moment. I love that!
I can read a book on a Kindle with interest, if I have to, but not with the kind of pleasure that I get from a real, hard-copy book. There is just nothing like a real book.
I know a man, a prominent doctor in Anchorage, who has a fabulous collection of beautiful, leather-bound, gilt-edged classic books. The entire upper floor of his house is lined with shelf after shelf of these treasures. He loves them. He looks at them proudly; he shows them to his guests proudly. He dusts them and attends to them lovingly. And, yet, he never reads them. I was shocked, the first time I visited him, to discover that he has not read any of them, cannot talk about them. He loves them for their aesthetic value. He simply loves books; he doesn’t particularly care about reading.
Now I am not at all like that. He may be even weirder than I am. My beautiful books are all well-read, usually several times over. I could not be around any book for very long without reading it. But, for me, the more beautiful the packaging of the book, the more it enhances my reading pleasure. I cannot warm up to a machine, no matter how clever and smart it may be. I suppose if I were a college student today, I might want a Kindle or some other electronic library in which to download textbooks. I would be reading those more for information and necessity than for enjoyment. Screw pleasure, just give the needed information so I can pass my tests! But to sit down to lose myself in the wonder of a book—no way would a machine work for me there.
I know. You are disappointed. You thought I was enlightened. You thought I was progressive. You thought I was cool.
Alas, the awful truth is that I think I am enlightened; I am progressive; I am cool. It’s everybody else who’s losing something.
So . . . I have already warned my grandchildren that Grampa is not giving anyone anything he or she may want this year. I am giving gifts that they may have to put away until they are 50. Then they may like them. I am giving them gifts for their souls, souls which, in my fusty archaic mindset, are in desperate need of something real, something quiet, something beautiful, something that does not blip or bleep.
But I have to sigh. The truth is that, whenever you leave your closet, no matter what kind of closet it is, you are never as liked, never as popular, as you were when you were safely ensconced within it.