I HEAR VOICES
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Sometimes when writing my blog I need to look something up to make sure my dates, quotes, etc. are correct. I have become aware that I usually sit for a moment deciding if I want to Google or walk into my library and search for a particular book that may or may not have the information I’m seeking. After this “to surf or not to surf” moment I always go into my library. Even when I know I probably don’t have the book I need. Now why do I do this? I know repeating the same action over an over and getting the same result is the sign of a … book lover.
I will try to explain my Sisyphus-like behavior. I go into my little library because I know I will be alone with the author (book) that I pluck from the shelf. It will just be me and the writer’s words. There will not be two hundred choices. There will not be eighty different sites vying for my attention. I won’t be distracted by advertising; or sites that don’t live up to their hype; or somehow lead me into other sites I don’t want to be in; or constantly send me to Amazon to a buy a book I don’t want.
I will reveal a secret: I hear voices when I Google. Yes, voices. Trust me I’m not sitting here with tin foil wrapped around my head. I really am a fairly rational person (at least most of the time.) But when I’m on the net I feel people coming at me. I hear the chattering of their data without context. I hear lonely people, obnoxious people, obsessed people, and all of them screaming their information at me at the same time. Without discretion the data, the facts, get reduced and crunched and pureed into a grumbling minutia. Google is a vast muttering, disoriented Greek Chorus. Call me elitist. Go on. I really don’t mind. But you have to admit to hearing some of these voices. Listen. You can hear them saying, Look at me I have all the data you need to know.” “I have lists from A to Zed.” I have lists from Zed to A.” “I’ve seen every movie made in the 1980’s.”
There is a site about the stand-in for Elizabeth Montgomery who played Samantha in Bewitched. Now why do I know this? Because the stand-in is also named Melodie. And as fate would have it I starred in a Bewitched segment. There were two of us named Melodie. (Though she may have spelled her name differently.) Wow! Woo woo. Who cares!? Who needs to know this? I didn’t even know it until I got lost on Google. When I Google I feel like I’m surrounded by babbling idiot savants.
But when I go into my library it is quiet. The books are silent. Until I slip the one I want out and open it. Only then does the intimate slow paced conversation between writer and reader begin. That doesn’t mean I don’t get distracted as I do on Google. But it’s a distraction with a difference. I may search for one piece of information and end up reading two or ten chapters. This book I hold in my hand is giving me the context for the facts. The writer’s words lead me to a deeper understanding than a quick quote on Google could ever do.
On the other hand I can get distracted by something else completely. When I was looking for some information on Jane Austen for my last column I turned to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lecture on Literature. (His lectures were given to some very lucky Vassar students.) But some pages flipped and I was suddenly reading what he had to say about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
In answering the question, “So what if a man is turned into a beetle?” He says, “There is no rational answer to so what … but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity — that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.”
Later he says of Gregor: “Here is a point to be considered with great care and love…Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people. With Gregor’s death their insect souls are suddenly aware that they are free to enjoy themselves.” Then he says, in true Nabokovian form, to his students, “Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes, some Janes, do not know that they have wings.”
And I was suddenly a young girl feeling that sense of beauty and pity and knowing why I wanted to write.
I know I sound like an old (did I use the word old?) fuss pot. (Did I use the phrase fuss pot?) But I can get what I need from the internet with the best of them. But I will always go to my books first. I will always need context to go with my facts. And I trust the voices I hear in my library.