The Forgetfulness of Hummingbirds

Gustave Doré, illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Fates drink from the river of forgetfulness.

Retired people are supposed to keep mentally alert. It stops us frittering whatever time we have left away as our brain wanders off unbidden into some kind of intellectual no-man’s-land from which there is no return. Some do Sudoku, others crosswords, and some go for long walks with other like-minded people, identifying flora and fauna. In my case, no, thank you, none of the above. I occasionally attempt to solve calculus problems in my head but I don’t really think that counts.

The Internet is a marvellous thing – organic, growing, addictive. It contains about ninety seven percent absolute rubbish – with a hat tip to ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – a small portion of quite useful material and a minuscule droplet of pure gold. Cats on skateboards fall into none of these categories, neither do pictures of my grandchildren, for whom special circumstances apply.

When I was a boy, I read, stripping the school library bare. From Hesse to Lawrence to Shakespeare – there was a skeleton left of things even I didn’t want to read, otherwise, the place had been systematically plundered. As an adult, I collected books, filling shelves and more shelves with fiction, biography and whatever else caught my eye.

It’s not just interesting but absolutely frightening to observe that the young do not read. Really read. Sit in a corner or under the piano with a book. Holding information for more than a handspan of time, undistracted. Instead, their eyes rarely lifting from the Orwellian screen, they flit from paragraph to paragraph like hummingbirds, attention wandering from one topic to the next, pond-skating on a surface like licking an ice cream cone, bouncing along from one tiny dopamine high to the next. It may be permanently affecting their brain chemistry.

I’m doing a course online, which is hard enough since I have no background in the material so it’s a bit like trying to learn group theory when you haven’t been taught how to add up.  All of the foregoing arose from thinking about a lecture I’d been watching this morning; the easy bit of my course.  The required reading for it reminded me that if I actually want to learn something well enough to reflect intelligently about it, I can’t just skip the hard bits, the bits I don’t like because I can’t immediately understand them. Instead, I have to spend time engaging all my faculties – for me – in silence, reading and re-reading the text so understanding crystallises long enough to think and form conclusions.

There are no easy answers. Successful people have long realised that the Internet is the opiate of the people, the river of oblivion, the Lethe of forgetfulness and most people retain very little from all the clicking and jumping around, instead doing themselves few psychological favours. I have told myself that I am going to buy a few more real books, paper ones, not downloads, that I can flip the pages on, turn a corner down as a bookmark and remind myself of my youth. I think that might be one small way to help keep the craziness and oblivion at bay.


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