The Wordy Birder


On Screen, Off Screen
May 6, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

One of the books I had a sort of one-night-romance with in grad school was Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of his massive multi-book collection A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or Remembrance of Things Past. That famous opening 30 pages of the text where Proust details a memory of his childhood touched something deep within my inner child (in a platonic way, of course), and I fell deeply, madly in love with Proust’s narrative voice and his fondness for all things memory related. Since I have a famously terrible memory myself, I found something of a kindred spirit in Proust: like me, he was brought back into a vivid memory of his childhood via biting into a petite madeleine cookie. Being a well-known food lover, I’ve had many similar moments in my life.

I never did finish Swann’s Way, and forget the whole Remembrance of Things Past collection. Ironically, I haven’t been reading much for pleasure these days–the lot of the English teacher’s life, I suppose. However, that petite madeleine moment and the memory it sparked has turned over in my mind ever since, and I found myself thinking about it today as I scrolled through what was probably the 87,545th wikipedia entry I have perused in recent years.

It was an entry about Jim Henson, of all people. In a moment of quiet teaching desperation, I showed Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth to my freshmen and discussed narrative voice and fantasy characterization. While they watched, I “wikid” Jim Henson. As I read through the details of Jim’s charmed life and too-early death, I got a creepy feeling akin to deja vu. I’d read this wikipedia entry before, I was certain–but I had no idea when or why, and to be quite frank, I completely forgot that Jim Henson had died of a mysterious and sudden illness when he was only 53 years old. I also forgot that hundreds of people put on a New Orleans style funeral for him, complete with the cast of the muppets, Sesame Street, and a whole host of his other puppet creations to send him from his Earthly life. After reading it the second time, I remember being moved by this idea the first time I had read it on wikipedia, and thinking over what such a spectacle would look like. I remember thinking that would be a good way to go.

If someone had stopped me on the street yesterday and asked me how Jim Henson died, I would have given them a blank stare. I had no recollection of that wikipedia entry before I looked it up a second time and read a good 80% of the way through. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked something up, then forgotten it rather quickly. But what disturbed me about the Jim Henson moment was that I had totally forgotten reading the entry about a man who I very much admired, and when he died in the early 90’s, I remember crying in my parents living room watching the news. He’s the only famous person aside from Charles Shulz and Michael Jackson whose death brought me to tears. I should have remembered that wikipedia entry, if I remembered any at all.

Wikipedia is an addictive little tool—even more so than google, in my opinion. There’s something so safe and reassuring about that encyclopedia format. It’s so much easier to use than that trusty old set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas that used to sit on my grandmother’s basement shelves, and it feeds my thirsty brain’s desire for trivia snacks multiple times a day. It gives shape and form to the vast, rollicking sea that is the internet, and it makes surfing those waves of useless information seem somehow academic and thus, legitimate.

I’m not so sure how useful wikipedia is in the long run, though. If one of the most touching and important wikipedia entries has been all but erased from my brain completely after I viewed it, does it make every moment I have spent on the site completely irrelevant? Granted, my sieve of a brain is not exactly the point by which all things should be measured, but it stands to reason that if I’m forgetting nearly everything, then it is highly likely most everyone is forgetting lots of things.

Proust was onto something. Our brains–and the senses so harmoniously attached to them–connect memories to moments, distinct and original–to sights, smells, touches, flavors, sounds. In the absence of all sensory markers, all information becomes repetitive, redundant, trivial, and indistinct. For someone like me, this is the death knell to memory. If there isn’t an emotion or, say, the taste of a petite madeleine to bring me back to a memory, chances are, it will evaporate.

I’m left to wonder what this means for the internet at large, and for objects like the kindle or the fate of email in general. I look at my dog-eared and tattered copy of Wilson Rawls’ novel Where the Red Fern Grows and I am instantly transported back to Ms. Hodgson’s fourth grade class, when she read the novel aloud to us, choking up when the doggies die. I remember knowing at that moment that books would always be a major part of my life. Would that moment be the same if I’d read that book on a kindle–with its mute-gray screen, singular text and font size, and same pasty white plastic carrier? I still have the handwritten notes of my first boyfriend tucked away in a box somewhere for perusal when I am old and gray, but the majority of notes from more recent loves all look exactly the same and exist in a digital mailbox somewhere on that lonely internet.

E plurubus unum (From many, one), the United States motto comes to mind when I start trying to coin a term for this phenomenon. It’s an apt metaphor for what both our country and the whole technology age in general has become. As we continue to downsize and synchronize from many languages to one, from well-worn and hard earned cd collections to slick digital ipods, from handwritten valentines to gmails, and from shared memories to wiki-moments, I’m left to wonder just how much of the real is left, and just what kind of a need we have for memories anymore–that is, of course, if we still continue to create them.

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