Best of 2017 Weekend Reads: Lost and Found
Do you remember the last time you received a handwritten letter or note, or were struck by beautiful penmanship? I do.
Not long ago, a friend dropped off a thank you card for a dinner I had hosted. I can recall the weight of the card stock as I held it in my hands. And my eyes were drawn to the elegant calligraphy — her name, in fine cursive — astride the top. A few months ago, another friend wrote me a check, and the first thing that struck me was her exquisite cursive writing.
Letter writing and cursive, sadly, are dying art forms. Some might even say lost art forms.
Which brings us to the theme of this week’s Weekend Reads, which doubles as an end-of-2017 best of series: Lost and Found.
I was rummaging through an old box of miscellaneous papers one recent weekend when I happened upon a badly photocopied article dated 31 July 1994: “Letters Are Acts of Faith; Telephone Calls Are a Reflex” by Vivian Gornick. Fascinated that I had held onto it for so long, I took it out.
The article opens with the tale of Mr. Levinson, who we learn (parenthetically) was “an unhappily married man who lived in the Bronx.” He and the author’s mother worked in the accounts department of a bakery in Lower Manhattan, and when they parted in the evenings, Levinson “fell into the habit of writing to her late at night” because “his need for her conversation had often not run its course.”
This letter-writing relationship forms the backdrop for Gornick’s ruminations on letter writing versus telephone calls and her inner dialogue on why letter writing succumbed to the newer technology of the telephone.
“Seventy years ago, when Mr. Levinson wanted to relieve his overflowing heart he wrote a letter to my mother,” writes Gornick. “This morning, when the same need drove my friend Laura she picked up the telephone and called me. The result, in a sense, was also the same — connection had been made, a vital exchange extended, the courage for life restored — but surely the difference signifies.”
It seems quaint these days to read about telephone conversations. But replace “telephone” with, say, “Twitter” or another form of social media, and the tension remains just as relevant today:
“The telephone conversation is, by its very nature, reactive, not reflective. Immediacy is its prime virtue. The immediacy delivers quick company, instant stimulation; the stimulation is cathartic; catharsis pushes back anxiety; into open space flows the kind of thought generated by electric return. The letter, written in absorbed solitude, is an act of faith: it assumes the presence of humanity: world and self are generated from within: loneliness is courted, not feared. To write a letter is to be alone with my thoughts in the conjured presence of another person. I keep myself imaginative company. I occupy the empty room. I alone infuse the silence. All these things Mr. Levinson did 70 years ago, when he sat down at midnight to write to my mother.”
I have been reflecting a lot of late on lost time, specifically time lost to social media. Time that I will never get back. And also on the way we choose to communicate with each other: texts vs. conversations vs. emails vs. posting social media updates.
In the shift to digital communication, what have we lost? Time and human connections easily spring to mind, although the list goes on.
Over the summer, I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone in an attempt to be more present during a family vacation abroad and free up mental space to read a book or two. (Check! I read two.) A week or so ago, I took another plunge: I deleted the Twitter app. The social media platform had been my go-to resource for news for the past six years, providing the news junkie in me the “fix” I needed. But over the past year, it became less and less useful and more of a distraction. (Now my go-to resource arrives in my inbox once a day — in the evening: DataTrek‘s morning briefing on “markets, data and disruption.”)
You may recall from an earlier edition of Weekend Reads that far and away the most fascinating — and terrifying — article I had read in a while was “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia” in The Guardian. If you are still on the fence about the perils of social media, here are two recent pieces from TechCrunch that are bound to get you thinking: “The Difference between Good and Bad Facebooking” and “The Technology Industry Needs to Think More Seriously about Device Addiction”.
I’m relieved I deleted those two social media platforms. I still sometimes reflexively turn to my smartphone for the seductive “pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears,” as described in The Guardian article, but since my brain no longer gets its fix of dopamine, the addiction is wearing off.
Think about it for a minute: How many times a day do you check your smartphone, or scroll through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest?
Research shows users touch, swipe, or tap their phones 2,617 times a day. Another survey found that Americans typically check their smartphones once every 6.5 minutes, or about 150 times a day. That adds up to a lot of time that we can never get back.
So while I may have lost some social media connectivity, I have found so much more in return: free time, presence of mind, and a happier mental state. I don’t miss the relentless echo chamber of negativity that now seems to define the social media experience.
(A side note: A few weeks ago a running buddy shared an article and implored our training group to work on our glutes, reminding us that “runners with weak glutes fall into the ‘the toilet bowl of doom’” — a phrase I immediately adopted (and adapted) as the reason for my social media abstinence: a desire to no longer circle the drain of despair, or “the toilet bowl of doom.”)
Looking back on a year of Weekend Reads, here are three pieces that stand out in relation to the “Lost and Found” theme:
- Back in February, I told you about Kathryn Schulz’s deeply personal and profoundly moving essay about loss and grief: “When Things Go Missing: Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss.” (I will never forget a line from her review of H is for Hawk, in which she captures the depth of grief in this sentence: “Like a tent poorly staked, she is filled by the storm that is grief and blown away.”) You may recall Schulz won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and a National Magazine Award for “The Really Big One,” about the threat of a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. And for the runners among you, she wrote a terrific piece: “What We Think about When We Run.” (The New Yorker)
- In March, I solved I wrote about a mystery I had solved — one that had been vexing me for the better part of the past 15 years or so. I was living in New York City on 11 September 2001, and in the subsequent uncertain, frightening days, I clearly remember reading an article about the therapeutic effect of cooking a stew. Over the years. I have thought about that article countless times, but try as I may, I could not find it. Sam Sifton, the founding editor of NYT Cooking, likes to remind readers that cooking is so much more than recipes, it is an act that helps bind friends and families together. I agree. I often find a state of flow when I’m in the kitchen. For me, cooking is a meditative, restorative act (a friend says she is a “therapeutic baker”). Sifton provided the clue to my mystery. All these years, I had been searching in the archive of The New Yorker when I should have been searching the “Gray Lady.” “Black dogs are everywhere, biting. There is no better time to cook,” Sifton wrote recently. “Regina Schrambling wrote a recipe for just such a state back in the dark days that followed the attacks of 9/11: beef stew with Dijon mustard and cognac. ‘Long before there were antidepressants,’ she wrote at the time, ‘there was stew.’ So maybe give her recipe a run this weekend as a kind of meditation, labor therapy over the stove.” The full article, the one I have been hunting for years, is: “When the Path to Serenity Wends Past the Stove,” published 19 September 2001. (The New York Times, Popular Mechanics)
- And in August, I shared that my favorite article, hands down, from the past few weeks — and perhaps even of 2017 — was Tejal Rao’s delightful and inspiring account of self-taught chef Erin French and her restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, in Freedom, Maine. It is a tale of resilience, determination, and beauty. (The New York Times)
Here is a one additional (new) article to add to the list, about the so-called Bureau of Found Objects: “The Peculiar Poetry of Paris’s Lost and Found.” I especially enjoyed the pragmatic explanation for why it’s called the Bureau of Found Objects, rather than the Bureau of Lost Objects. “Because we do not know if they were lost or stolen,” says Patrick Cassignol, bureau director. “We know only that they have been found.” (The New Yorker)
And with that, thank you for reading. Best wishes for 2018: May you lose whatever it is that has weighed you down this past year and, in return, find a new sense of lightness and well-being.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.