My three-year-old car, a joy in every other way, is on its third radio and I had to wait almost eight months to get the latest one. The CD player and the tape deck never stopped working, but the radio was a hit-and-miss, static-y affair. It might pull in a signal for few minutes, but usually faded away on drives longer than 10 minutes, torturous for an NPR fan such as myself. (Okay, and a “Don and Mike” fan, too. There, I’ve said it.) Once the pre-set stations stopped working, I would press seek, only to watch the numbers flash past in an endless loop, incapable of engaging.
The day before Thanksgiving, the radio was finally replaced and I drove through Baltimore, hitting the now functional “seek” button so often that I risked aggravating my carpal tunnel. It was almost as if the radio gods knew how long I had been deprived, for I kept striking guilty pleasure after guilty pleasure. With each fortuitous encounter, I felt as if I had won some sort of lottery. Sure, I could have listened to those songs whenever I wanted — downloaded them from the Internet, burned them on to my own homemade CDs — but it wouldn’t have provided anywhere near the same amount of joy.
Is this a generational bias? I grew up in a three-channel world, where the quality of a rainy Sunday was completely dependent on WBAL’s “Picture for a Sunday Afternoon.” (Oh, for The Mole People, or that lovely movie about the women’s prison.) My parents controlled the car radio, as was proper, so the soundtrack to my early years was mainstream pop. Proust had his madeleines; I have “Don’t Sleep in the Subway, Darling.” To stumble on that song again is to be transported to the backseat of my family’s pale green Valiant, circa second grade, en route to art classes at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Think about it: Even if you own all your favorite DVDs, even if you have an iPod with hundreds of tailored playlists, even if you have mastered TiVo, isn’t there something uniquely pleasurable about an unplanned encounter with a song or a show that you love? I can watch, say, Strictly Ballroom any time I want, but there’s a different thrill to flipping on the television and finding it already playing.
Technology can’t transform the reading experience this way, but reading is still a realm open to the possibility of random joy — a good book unearthed in unlikely places, such as a beach house rental or a doctor’s waiting room. A recent post to the Memory Project mentioned how the book The Women’s Room had changed the poster’s life. Twist Phelan has a marvelous tale about how the lack of reading material helped her get started as a writer, but it’s only fair to let her tell that herself.
A character in Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters muses on the directions in which books have sent her:
“And then take the ‘coincidence of my finding that [D.H.] Lawrence novel. Browsing in the American Forces Library under Travel/Southern U.S.A.’ (because thinking about packing up and going home had made me homesick), I found St. Mawr mistakenly shelved in the adjoining ‘Travel/Southwest U.S.A.’ . . . [W]hen I got home and was applying to graduate schools around the country, it was remembering the scenery descriptions in the novel that made me apply to the University of New Mexico.”
Once in New Mexico, she meets and marries her own Lawrencian hero. And while it’s fair to point out that this is fiction and all novelists might be inclined to believe that their work can change others’ lives, I not only believe it can, I know it can. My partial list includes: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mildred Pierce, Indemnity Only, Tourist Season, Devil in a Blue Dress, Nick’s Trip, All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers and, come to think of it, A Mother and Two Daughters.
With the advent of Caller ID, the telephone has lost much of their ability to surprise, but e-mail and the Internet remain random, perhaps too random.