Deep whimsy

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Megan Garber opines:

Under e-readers’ influence, the linear project of book-reading – from page 1 to page 501, sequentially – has shifted to something much more chaotic, much more casual, much more accommodating to whimsy and whim.

I’m reminded of Emerson’s winningly perverse advice about reading:

Do not attempt to be a great reader; and read for facts, and not by the bookful. … Stop, if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph.

Emerson, always seeking to put up another fortification around the self’s besieged keep, worried that if you allowed yourself to become too engrossed in a book, you’d fall under the spell of the writer’s words and that would prevent you from hearing your own inner voice. His was an anxiety of influence.

But Garber’s celebration of magpie reading stems from a not entirely dissimilar place: what is whim if not a deep expression of personal autonomy? Whim is the self at play. And surely magpie reading — a paragraph or two of Austen, a stanza of Heaney, a page of Borges — is a thing to be celebrated. It’s like going through a box of chocolates, each with a different filling.

But is whim really best served by an elaborate mechanism? Is “the linear project” (note to self: good band name) really as unaccommodating of whimsy as Garber suggests? She traces the allegedly whimsy-producing e-reader back to a 16th-century contraption for “book-borne snacking” that looked like this:

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Holy mackerel. That looks more like a whimsy-destroying machine. It’s the literary equivalent of a chastity belt. I mean, look at the poor guy’s expression.

As you approach your first Vegas-style dinner buffet, you of course expect it to be more accommodating of whimsy and whim than a meal prepared as a linear project by a single chef and served sequentially, from course 1 to course 4. But when you reel away from the buffet, bloated, gassy, and dissatisfied, all the dishes having blurred together on your palate and in your mind, you realize that what you had taken for whim and whimsy was nothing more than self-indulgence.

Garber points to Moby Dick as being snackworthy. And it’s certainly that—every sentence a bon-bon. But what Garber loses sight of is that to read Moby Dick in its entirety—sequentially, as a linear project—is to let whimsy and whim truly run wild. Has a more whimsical book been written? One of the great things about reading a good book, or enjoying any kind of art, is that our own sense of whim and whimsy gets to be magnified by the artist’s sense of whim and whimsy. There’s whimsy, and then there’s deep whimsy. The former is a cinch; the latter actually takes a little effort, requires a little resistance to the easy but fleeting pleasures of self-indulgence. If the e-reader makes it easier to avoid the linear project, it’s not so much accommodating whim and whimsy as it is rendering them a little less liberating, a little more mundane.

Whim is not synonymous with caprice. The magpie is more capricious than the hawk, but the hawk is infinitely more whimsical than the magpie. Ted Hughes understood that:

The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot …

Whim’s most whimsical when it has a will.

Photo by Mafue.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to Deep whimsy

  1. Deborah

    “deep whimsy”

    ….immediately made me think of what C.S. Lewis referred to in Narnia, as ‘deep magic’. Same thing. ;-)

    We don’t get deep anything without effort.

  2. Charles

    Reading, like writing, is a nonlinear activity. Just as the writer can go back and edit his previous writing, the reader can go back and forth to read and reread different sections. This is embodied in the printed book format, but I have yet to see an ebook implementation of anything as simple as footnotes that is as easy to use as print.

  3. vanderleun

    “Whim’s most whimsical when it has a will”
    Which wills its way to whimsy still.

  4. Nick

    Nice iambs. My line’s a bit clumsier.

  5. Eric

    Not all concurrent reading is whimsical. I’m reading my way through Alan Ryan’s magisterial history of political philosophy “On Politics”, which rewards dipping into some of its source texts. There are limits – if I were to read through everything he references, I’d be looking at a two – three year reading project and would have lost the sweep of history he portrays – but sampling from some of the more important texts has been a heady, rewarding experience.

    Technology facilitates this. It makes a reference work like On Politics as light as my Kindle. It lets me flip between Locke’s Second Treatise and a good commentary with a tap of the button, it lets me listen to Leviathan on a long walk. I can’t see myself doing this without these aids. You’ve done important work highlighting the frivolous aspects of this, but there’s a lot to say about the other edge of the sword.