Newspapers daily retail the abruptly horrific, the superficial, the instantly shocking, the bizarre and the unstable, and in so doing, they smother any attempt at personal observation or personal thought. If a bucket of water is constantly poured over your head, you will soon find it hard to breathe. If your ambition is to want to half-learn something that is not really essential to your own life and your individual consciousness, but it happens to be popular with the dull mass, read newspapers or go to the web. News is the opium of the people.
All of us harbor a growing need to be startled, to be shocked, outraged or made curious by the horrible, distorted and the morbid. This need grows in us all the time as our lives contracts and the mind becomes more bored with itself and shuns the discipline of learning something valuable. I suffer from this myself. I daily read articles on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the war on terror, the collapse of Iraq, but how much of these do I remember after I put them down? I read things about teacher’s salaries, the stock market, fracking, the profiles of successful companies, etc, but the inescapable fact of life is that memorization is required to learn anything. What is left in the mind after you put such things down? To read something and afterwards not stage and pass a mental quiz is to have totally wasted your time. Why read something if you cannot remember what it said? Mental progress above all requires having to war with your own lazy inclinations. Reading something and not being able to recall what it said, reminds one of intelligent people who lightly toss off, “Oh, I read that in high school,” as if that is all that could be said on the matter. Is their mind the same as it was in high school? Hasn’t their sense of taste, the appreciation of structure, the growth of their inner critic that sorts the good from the bad, the mediocre from the excellent — have those things not changed drastically since then?
Newspapers war with our personal life. Crude articles tend to make us weak-minded, stupid or unthinkingly credulous. They weaken our powers. The observations of your own personal experience form the basis of your thought. It means noticing things. It means seeing. I look out my window and see large patches of blue sky, large, standing leafless trees, curled up dead leaves covering the ground; I see the flick and dart of yard birds. I see that a lovely, spreading yellow green tree is still blooming, and the drab decay of the summer foliage makes it stand out more starkly. It is beautiful and reassures.
What is the first emotion I feel as I look out? Wonder. I rejoice in life, my spirits boosted by the darting and flicking of the little birds. What thoughts do I have? That life is precious. It is limited, so enjoy it day by day. If the trees and birds can get through winter, than so can I. Winter is, after all, nature sleeping and at rest. If the birds and the blooming tree can get through winter, than so can I.
But reading newspapers is something very impersonal. Basically, the newspaper and the web present us with a structure whose purpose is to prevent ordinary people like me from minding their own business. Readers of newspapers are actually people who have only a moderate interest in what they read. (The exception being the members of the chattering classes of politicians and pundits.) My spiritual investment in studying newspaper facts is very small even though I slog through mountains of them each day. This is because the value of a newspaper rests on the moment. Popular accounts engage only a meager sphere of life. They loose our ties to the valuable past, so that the vital interest of the reader is frustrated and mislaid.
Newspaper articles remind me of signal fires placed on very distant peaks. The fires throw off a garish light, but it is a distracting light that blinds or obliterates or disfigures the truly important things of intellectual or spiritual life. Thanks to today’s heaving sea of infinite data, real and solid knowledge is debased, wasted, squandered, ignored, or even blotted out, as we get lost in the thickets of the current and topical. To choose to spend hours reading various newspapers involves an assessment of the values involved. On the web or in a newspaper, the matter-of-fact details smother and derail the mind of the reader. Articles dull it because the web/newspaper conforms to the taste of the time. It retails what is popular, current, and typical. Its policies are that of the owners. It floats on the frivolous and inane. Trivial life devours real life.
It should be noted that newspaper readers are often not good conversationalists, mainly because we are so addicted to reading in brief snap shots, in easily digested short bits. Since we all learn a bit of the same thing from the same sources, what is likely to be the result? Often we cannot give an account of what we have learned because newspapers give voluminous details, leaving their readers with neither the will nor the intelligence to try and discern what these cumulative details mean. Any narrative that isn’t brief makes our attention wander. We are not to be interested in depth of any kind. We are not interested in another’s thoughts if they are not topical. When another tries to explain something that isn’t in the newspaper, the newspaper reader-listener starts to get their foot tapping, waiting for the comments to end because they are off the subject at hand, and because our minds manifest no broad or persistent interests. Asking newspaper reader to comprehensively retail the knowledge of what he has read and you get only gists, half formed and half remembered knowledge. You learn little and so have they.
The concept of a sound, conscious mind implies the ability, the energy, the discernment to separate mounds of news data from each other, assign a value to them, even while we try develop thoughts which are not “useful” — not essential to improving the economy or the level of political discourse or the better functioning of government and any other pressing civic topics. Real “use” in reading consists of building cultural capital. It consists of respecting the valuable, not the fleeting, in the hierarchy of man’s needs. When we read newspapers, the will to try and assimilate and cultivate intelligent thought and the ability to articulate the spiritually essential, is missing. To really learn what matters in life requires a lot of self control. It takes searching, energetic alertness. It requires that you wait and absorb patiently and not allow yourself to be swept away by a flood of the commonplaces. In the newspaper, nothing lasting is done because nothing was done with a view to lasting.
All of these smart phones and other “clever” devices are a means of weakening the ability to remember and recall. Such machines to spare the brain labor, reducing a whole science to a handful of visual symbols and signs, making us see at the expense of being able to deeply understand. Today’s infinite sea of data and information depresses thought and is a cause for disquiet. Or it should be.