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Being executive director of a think tank that monitors the health of marriage and family in America requires me to be intimately familiar with grim news. To keep my spirits buoyed, I’ve made a habit of turning my mind away and allowing it to be absorbed into happier things. Time with my wife and children, prayer, and spiritual retreats have been respites in times of turmoil. But I also have a need for stories—the lighter the better. Wodehouse has done the trick, as have several of Ian Fleming’s evocative Bond books. Most recently, I was captivated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I picked up on the second day of Christmas and finished on the third. I was completely swept away, like Jim Hawkins riding the tide in a coracle boat in pursuit of the Hispaniola. But, as I read, I could not help but be reminded that my mind is weaker than it used to be. 

I was a voracious reader when I was young. So tight was the cord between my imagination and the text, nothing would break it, save for a knock on the door or a call to supper. Things are different now. At the age of forty-two, even while reading an enchanting adventure by the likes of Stevenson, I was distracted by the emails that I was not replying to, the “discourse” that was chattering away without my knowledge, the news that was breaking, beckoning me to check in. The repose of a mind at ease among books, undergirded by the power of focus, was all but gone. Now, as Jim and his companions were contending with the plots of Long John Silver and his fellow mutineers, I was fighting the allure of electronic networks calling me back. 

Smartphones and social media are largely responsible for this state of distraction. I was living in New York City when Apple products became a fashion accessory in Brooklyn and Twitter became the platform of choice for Manhattan’s sophisticates. I was immediately wary of them, having just regained my mind’s native power after several years of recovery from incessant weed smoke (with other substances in the mix on occasion). My destructive habit, thank God, was taken from me in a single miraculous night of desperate prayer. After years of daily use, I never smoked again—and I was rescued from impending madness.

During those years of self-abuse, I’d lost practically every memory of my childhood. My new faith led me eventually to Rome, but I soon learned that spiritual growth does not necessarily come with recovered memories—at least on this side of mortality. My past life was, and still is, totally lost to me, like so much treasure scattered among the surf.

What I did recover, eventually, was the power to concentrate. That came through a rigorous retraining in reading. Having flunked out of film school, I floundered for a few years, when I enrolled in The King’s College in New York City. It is no exaggeration to say that it saved my life by being extremely demanding. Under faculty members who were influenced by Straussian approaches to reading, I carefully studied several works of Plato, Aristotle, the pre-Socratics, the early Church Fathers, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, the Federalists, the anti-Federalists, and Nietzsche—and that was just my first year. Compared to the liberal education of eras past, this was poor man’s work. But for me, whose mind had crashed on the rocks, it was a rebirth. I became in those halls, and on those subway rides between classes, a lifelong reader.

It became quickly apparent to me that smartphones and social media were beginning to subject the people around me—smart, disciplined, hard-working people—to a profound change. They were more hunched over, prone to glancing at the device during conversations, and scrolling. Always scrolling. 

These devices attack our human nature. Under the old media dispensation, that of books, our minds were rigorously shaped to produce literacy in us—disciplined to patiently endure numerous passages in order to arrive at the conclusion of a work and grasp the whole. Under the reign of electronics, we have been refashioned into pictographic receptors, which elicit instantaneous “likes” and favor immediate payloads of dopamine. Today, we raise up post-literates as a matter of policy, expending extraordinary sums of money and political power to ensure that kids are addicted to screens and useless with the page.

We live—as media theorist Neil Postman put it in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)—in “a peek-a-boo world,” where “this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again.” In the peak-a-boo world, we are subjected to an endless stream of images of matters great and small, far and near, all of which are beyond our power to affect. Whereas “A book is an attempt to make thought permanent,” Postman says, electronic media transmits “the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message.” Because these messages are never meaningfully concerned with our actual lives, they just come and go, vanishing from our memories with the arrival of new stimuli. The peak-a-boo world actively attenuates the powers of recollection by making knowledge unnecessary to live a functional life (or what passes for one today). We have received more information than any other humans in history; but our store of memory lies empty.

America is a nation of amnesiacs, like my days as a stoner: emptied of its inner life and languishing in a state of desolation. Fearing a return to my former state of mindlessness, I have limited the place of screens in my life. My nine-to-five is spent working on a computer. The digital still thrums in my veins. But I have fought to maintain the mental power to, on occasion, enjoy a few days with Jim Hawkins as he fights against that one-legged scallywag, Long John Silver.

At home, my wife and I have invested in technologies that better preserve our literary being. We use dumb phones, restrict the reach of the internet to certain rooms, and have just purchased a word processor designed to limit distraction. For our children, we keep them off of screens almost entirely—there is no TV. But more than that, we keep a home with shelves upon shelves of books, with a few extra piles of overflow scattered here and there. We have no hope that we can raise our kids to be entirely innocent of Silicon Valley’s tyrannical devices. But if we can teach them to treasure the world of books, we will keep alive in them the world of memory. 

Michael Toscano is executive director of the Institute for Family Studies.

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Image by Robert Fludd licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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