Nantucket Essays

Digital Dodgeball

by Robert P. Barsanti

Main Street has many comfortable seats on a Sunday morning. The dramas and excitement of Saturday night have washed or rolled down the cobbles, and Sunday morning comes gleaming up the harbor. It dapples the bricks through the elms, reflects off the gallery windows, and lights up my coffee cup. The air is cool and clear, the traffic light, and the parade interesting. 

The running shoes and sunglasses rushed by at a healthy pace in both their legs and their lips. Untied running shoes pushed a carriage by while Mommy remained home and asleep. Flip-flops came up the street, picked up a rack of coffees and a bag of danishes, then headed back down. Sandals did some window-shopping and hand-holding while high-tops was patient. Dress shoes and her grandson walked past, holding the blue-lettered missal. 

Nobody carries a newspaper. 

They carry cell-phones, iPads, and water bottles. Some have last night’s clutch and this morning’s coffee. Hands held hands, held jackets, held shopping bags, and held fun little strappy sandles that would break on the stones. But no books, no papers, and no magazines. 

Once in my recent past, I had had the pleasure of having a newspaper reserved for me at the Hub. On Sunday morning, I would slip past the congested traffic that circled the counter, pick the rolled up paper that had been left for me, then back outside to enjoy Doonesbury, Funky Winkerbean, and Will McDonogh on my own. The reserved box wasn’t only necessary to reconfirm my overly inflated sense of self-worth, it was also necessary to insure you got a paper. Only so many newspapers arrived on the island at any time. As soon as they were gone, you were out of luck. 

Today, the news comes in a hose. It pesters us with a ring and a vibration to grab us to Buzzfeed’s “Ten Secrets I Didn’t Know About Caddyshack.” In truth, whenever I am standing in a grocery (or ice cream) line, I pop the phone open to see what car crashes are happening in the world. The whole purpose of social media is to watch for one car crash or another. Someone says the wrong thing, tweets the wrong thing, wears the wrong thing, or reveals the wrong thing and the eighth graders on the top row of the bleachers engage. We can rewatch the car crash, the tires spinning down the road, the shattering glass, and then the commentary and the commentary on the commentary, and then the memes. We are all eighth graders watching Digital Dodgeball. 

Other commentators have filled my phone with diatribes and harangues against the phone, as if it was kudzu and could be cut and poisoned into control. Clearly it can’t. Doomscrolling has evolved into a national hobby, like greenstamping and decoupage. According to the Annenberg Center, almost half of all adults spend the time before going to bed wandering down the pit holes and viper strewn paths of social media. I am not immune to this; Twitter sends me to MSNBC to someone else and the latest outrage bubbles up. 

In my short-attention-span Digital Dodgeball, I am hoping that someone gets hit by a wrench. (If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.) Or that someone else catches the Dodgeball. But not enough people are either throwing or catching. Instead, I scroll through, hoping to find something and afraid of missing something exciting. 

Few people throw wrenches or balls in the newspaper. Reading it requires space, time, and patience. The news, such as it is, happened yesterday. And the wrench-throwing wasn’t important enough to merit an article below the fold, or even in Metro page 4. 

Reading (as you know, dear reader) requires a calorie burn. The words rise up off the page and into your mind like so many Lego blocks, falling into people, places, and positions. They never wind up exactly as the writer intended, but he isn’t doing the building, is he? On the other hand, viewing puts the Lego ships, houses, and people into your mind wholly intact. You need not assemble, you need not experiment, and you need not test anything else. 

You can fail at Lego assembly, just as you can fail at reading. Happens all the time. It is supposed to be a race car, but you can’t make the bricks click and stay. One moment you are sitting in a comfortable chair with a cold beverage and the next you can’t make heads or tales out of Melville, Joyce, or Jodi Picoult. A June morning in Dublin remains a pile of words and lego bricks. You fail at it; you give up; and you go to Twitter. 

When I return to the pages of a book, my mind hiccups and lets the clutch slip. The topic doesn’t change fast enough and the pictures don’t move. When I read on an iPad, I have to prevent myself from slipping away and into Digital Dodgeball. 

Once I stick myself into a book, reading relaxes me. I settle into another world, another person, another place. The pages turn slower, the people meander, and you don’t need to Fear Missing Out. It’s all Right Here. 

On a flight from Salt Lake City, I forced myself into one of the books I was carrying. Around me, my seat mates were watching Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, or something murky on their phones. Without the distraction of the internet, I settled into a book and found myself, at one annoying section, closing it in embarrassment. Aware of this silliness, I returned to the humiliation of the text and kept going. 

Nantucket has always been a reader’s island. We support two book stores, an Atheneum, and the Take It or Leave It. You can’t miss anything on Madaquecham, because it is all there: sand, waves, and sun. The spinning world revolves around this still point. 

But until you get there, you can sit on a bench downtown, grab a cup of coffee and help me with the crossword.

Articles by Date from 2012