I admit I'm one of those people you've seen on a bus or in a waiting room, the one who seems to have tuned out the rest of the world and is, instead, enthralled by a smartphone. Sometimes my preoccupation is legitimate: I'm checking on a work project or confirming details for an upcoming social activity. But most times, I'm scanning headlines on my news reader and clicking through on items that are of interest, reading a paragraph or two before moving on. Some people would say I'm a news junkie and while that phrase might be accurate, it also seems a little too generous.
The truth is that when I'm focused on my 2 x 4-inch screen during those pockets of time between appointments and obligations, what I'm hunting for isn't really “news,” as we've come to understand the word as pertaining to information that is current, useful, and noteworthy. Instead, a better word for what I'm looking for is “novelty,” some tidbit of information that will give me a jolt, capture my imagination, and make me feel something—surprise, anger, worry, even revulsion—anything to make the searching worthwhile.
What's behind this search for the novel? Sure, there's genuine curiosity and its companion urge to research and discover, to seek and find. This coupled with my lifelong interest in vivid, bright strings of spoken and written words—the possibility they hold, the raw potential for familiar stories told in new ways—means that the Internet and digital reading devices have been a boon for someone like me. But I sometimes wonder if my desire for the novel, the riveting, the spectacular, is a kind of spiritual pica, an unhealthy craving that is symptomatic of a deeper need. Perhaps I'm like the jaded book critic in Tobias Wolff's short story “Bullet in the Brain” who, in the last seconds of his life, doesn't remember his grand successes and failures, but instead recalls a moment from childhood when, during a neighborhood baseball game, he hears another child say, “Shortstop's the best position they is.” In that moment, the narrator feels “strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.” Don't we all seek to feel roused and elated as we move through the world?
In this issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, we explore the allure, artifice, and utility of spectacle in our daily lives, from the opening essay that ponders the difficulty in having a truly meaningful experience amid the clang and clatter of attention-getting devices to the closing essay that questions the uncomfortable public appropriation of personal tragedies. The essays in this issue consider some of the motivations behind and fascination with spectacle, whether steeped in a desire to brush up against something new, to find wonder, to feel solidarity or awe.
Too often, I know, my quest for something new just sends me skittering atop the surface of things, not getting any real purchase. When I take the time to go deeper and reflect—with an electronic device in my hands, with paper, or with people—that's when I find myself somewhere unexpected and unknown. And sometimes, that's the best place there is.
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