Reading and Reflections: The Intellectual Pursuits We’ve Left Behind

Today I forgot my phone at home. So I read the one book that I happened to have with me. Fahrenheit 451.

I read the entire thing in a day. Visited old reflections on passages I haven’t thought about in years. And I remembered.

The Things It Brought Back

I remembered that there once was a time that I thought great and deep thoughts daily. That I was once a person who wrote down her reflections and fought constantly — because I knew that we were worth more than this world that surrounds us. This world that we’ve built out of complacency and the ever-continuous droll of 20-second films and emoji-filled updates about people we no longer truly know.

I remembered that there was a time when I considered myself an intellectual — and then almost vomited in anger when I realized that I still have the audacity to say as much because of these nearly-forgotten memories of reading daily and hours-long reflections about things that were bigger than myself.

Are We Still The Intellectuals We See Ourselves As?

We all cling to them — these positive identifiers that we have used for years, even as we forget them in our regular day-to-day. These holdovers from our youth when we were more than what we are, and we still tell ourselves that we are that person as we talk about the weather and politics for the same amount of time and with about the same amount of inflection. These friends we all have who declare that they are a writer when they haven’t created something in 20 years. The basketball players who haven’t picked up a ball since high school. The dreamers who move in a daze from work to home and work again and have forgotten what dreams they once had that let them believe they were worthy of the title.

This is us. This is me.

The Things That Fill Us

I remembered.

I remembered that “maybe people ought to be really bothered by something.” And I watched the people I love making small talk about clouds while they studiously avoided talking about politics. Who refuse to rock the boat with things that might make someone uncomfortable or lead out of the safe waters we always tread. We watch the news that splashes across our feeds, burying the heart-wrenching and anger-inducing stories in fluff as readily as Mildred buried those things that bothered her so far beneath the daily droll of her screens that they could only be found at the bottom of that crystalline bottle in the middle of the night and the snakes that made her even more empty than she already was.

And oh, Mildred, how I know about your three screens.

Your parlor with your “family.” You know their names and everything they say — everything they do during every moment of their day but nothing about the life behind those wooden and broken actions. My screens. My “friends.” The people I “surround” myself with. I know what you had for lunch. I’m sorry to hear your child is sick. You’re having a good day? Good for you!

But what makes you want to tear buildings down? What makes you want to scream at the sky or leap over cars? Tell me what makes your heart race. Tell Me. What makes your life real and meaningful?

The Things That Fill Our Lives

Maybe there isn’t a life behind those painted faces on Mildred’s programs. Maybe the people behind my three screens (my TV, my computer, and my phone — there is always at least one on, isn’t there? Is it so much different from her parlor?) are just as wooden and lifeless as her companions are– as wooden and lifeless as even I have become in the complacency that I allow to cover me like a dusty cloak. But I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that there is no spark left in this world where people still protest injustice and stand next to strangers with one voice. I know it. Have always known it. Even if I’ve buried it under lesser things and pretended I wasn’t doing so.

Sometimes I think I might still be more than this. That I might still be worthy of reflections and thoughts with meaning. I think to myself that I am still that fighter, that dreamer, that intellectual from my youth — I feel her flair up in that red-flickering rage that sometimes comes with the glance at a headline–sometimes an entire article, even! — and that notion of being more than I am stays with me even as I scroll on to the next distracting, but so-much-easier-to-digest goat video on my feed. As I scroll to a teenager singing Pavarottii and tell myself once again that I am an intellectual.

Because I listened to the whole 6-minute video, after all.

Unread Books Are Only Doorstops

It’s so easy to say that you are intelligent. An intellectual in a world where that means so little now. But I have the props to back it up, don’t I? I don’t need that fourth panel, Mildred, as you declare you do over and over to Montag in your broken, silly “conversations.” I tell myself I don’t want your forth wall, and that makes me better than you. Because I have my bookshelves. Hundred of books, millions of pages, stacked in uneven rows and sometimes heaps on boards that bow beneath the weight of all they hold. I look at those books with a loving gaze and tell myself that this proves that I am still an intellectual at heart. As long as I have them, it has to be true, right? I’m still someone who reads, who writes, who thinks.

And if you’re reading this — look to your own bookshelves. Your e-reader. Your notebooks. Are they covered in dust? Filled with fluff and dust bunnies that hold no true weight? Because mine are. But I keep them, and I wonder if maybe I only keep that wall of books so others may see it when they visit, or so I may use it as a backdrop when I take pictures of my own novel with my fancy phone and too many filters. Or, worse yet, maybe I want to keep the bookshelf so that I can yet again tell myself that I will dust off those tomes someday. The real me is still here. And I’ll read them again. All of them. Maybe even after this video. After all, it’s only 30 seconds.

And I scroll again.

We Live In a World of Snippets. We Lack Substance.

Snippets. That’s what I get my information from. Snippets of conversations, of articles, of headlines. And I realize with a cold dread edged with rage that even my ideas are only snippets now. These bright searing lights of inspiration quickly drowned out as one other thing takes over. One more thing. One more thing. Then I will act on that. One more thing. Then I’ll be who I was before. When school and life and the world forced me to think — before this freedom and privilege I looked forward to so earnestly granted me this complacency wherein constant ideas are not a necessity. Where I can tell myself “I’m too busy to do that right now” and be content.

There was a time when I wrote daily, and I didn’t care if I got Amazon reviews or if anyone read whatever I scrawled across the page. I wrote because I knew there were ideas in my head that were bigger than I was, and that the world would be a better place with those ideas in it.

I wrote because the world was within me instead of me just taking up this tiny speck in a world that I tell myself I can see from a computer screen.

A lifetime has passed since then, and I cannot tell myself that I have the same mind that that version of me had — but I think she’s in here, somewhere. In those flashes of rage and pools of fire that shoot upward from the darkness sometimes, in the middle of the night, briefly casting reflections against Mildred’s crystalline vial.

We Were Made For More Than This.

We were made for more than these snippets of other people’s lives. For more than entire ideas that can be summed up in a tweet or a screen-shot. For reflections on what has been rather than what might yet be.

We created this beast. We feed it, and it can seep into a life so silently, so easily, that you’re deep within the bottomless hole even before you know you’re down there, and the snake just keeps sucking the poison out of you, leaving you emptier and emptier because you forget that, within that poison that we shun and hide from, that we scroll past and refuse to look at because it’s just so much easier to write a sentence or a word or a whispered curse than to truly face it — that therein is LIFE.

The adversity in the world is what forces us to think, to create, to build. It forces us to be greater than we are. And we bury it. We burn it.

And, oh, is it a pleasure to burn.