Friday morning Earth hands me a hoe. Today we will till the garden, he tells me in Thai—which I don’t understand. But I understand the hoe. Up the hill, we go to the plot where the seed bank I work for grows out the varieties slated for multiplication. We begin to dig. Earth (his name an unintentional homonym with the planet) goes at it with purposeful speed; short jabs, his body bent at the waist. I watch for a moment then do my best to copy his technique. Seamus Heaney described the “clean rasping sound/when the spade sinks into gravelly ground.” But here in Northern Thailand the hoe makes a squelching sort of chunk-a-chunk as it slices in and turns the sticky clay. So different from the sand of Florida, the last place I gardened. This is more of a challenge.
When the weeds have been removed and the soil is soft and chunky we cart in the manure. Two bags-worth for each bed, scooped and poured then tilled in. The work is easier now, but I still fall behind Earth. His bed is smooth and he is covering the surface with straw mulch while I finish turning the manure under in mine. By now there are blisters on my hands and I hold my hoe gingerly, thinking of the line from Archibald Macleish, “life is a haft that has fitted the palms of many.” This haft fits Earth’s palms far better than mine, but I keep at it.
Digging is not on my resume, nor on my skills assessment. I’ve taken no classes in hand-tilling gardens. My degree is in something far more abstract. I shouldn’t be here. I should be somewhere inside with a computer and a stack of books—so say most of the proxies for vocation we recognize. But here I am. Because the seed must be grown and harvested before it can be analyzed. Because the database I’m working on can wait. Because everyone is supposed to know how to dig.
The following Sunday afternoon I spend reading—another skill we consider universally obligatory. This is more my element. Here I am part of a discussion not bound by time or place, a meeting of minds on the shared forum of the page. My education was predicated on the assumption that this is an innately worthwhile activity. But recently the activity of reading has changed. I brought a Kindle to Thailand and, though the seed bank is located on a rural demonstration farm, we have the internet here. So despite my relative isolation I have become well-nigh inundated with the fruits of the e-publishing revolution.
Right now I’m reading Palestine, by Joe Sacco, a graphic novel about the first intifada. I’ve also been skimming “Utopian for Beginners” by Joshua Foer, an article from The New Yorker about the creator of an invented language called Ithkuil, and “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on book collecting. Earlier I read a few reviews of Guy Deutscher’s book on linguistics, Through the Language Glass, and I’ve loaded up the Kindle with a couple more articles of a literary bent: one on the relationship between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman, the other a defense of the word “palimpsest.” Never have my reading appetites been so tantalized by choice and so unconstrained by location or budget.
Many a writer has mourned this revolution’s attendant scrapping of paper and ink. Walter Benjamin would certainly have hated it. E-books cannot—as in the aforementioned essay—be unpacked. They cannot be auctioned. They can never be considered rare or difficult to obtain. They cannot, in any sense that would be recognizable to Benjamin, be owned. They have no fate, no circumstance. E-books are, in the physical sense, nothing. “Book” verbed.
But I’m of a different mind from the nostalgists. Half-raised by the public library, for me books have always been in “the cloud.” I had no sense of the collector’s passion for a particular book. Books were but manifestations, avatars of the words printed in them. As long as my library card granted me access, I didn’t need to own a single volume. I’ve always been a book gnostic. I want the word free of its slavery to pulp, winging its way across the data-winds to my home in Thailand.
But still, something about all this bothers me. The day is wearing on. I’d intended to study Thai today, maybe walk to my co-worker’s house and try some new vocabulary on for size. But the sun is setting and here I am, still reading. I’m retreating from all this foreignness for a while, and the internet is aiding and abetting me. For here I have my ultimate retreat: Twitter knows I like long-form journalism on economics and foreign policy, particularly those written from a center-left neoliberal perspective (The Economist, Foreign Policy, the long articles in The New Yorker). Amazon knows I like literary nonfiction and American poetry from the mid-twentieth century, with a dash of Eastern Europe for variety (Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Wyslawa Szymborska and the ever-present Czeslaw Milosz). Here in my cocoon of preferences, wound ever tighter the more data these services gather, I need not be surprised or confronted. I can simply consume. No digging today. Everything I encounter will match my profile perfectly. “What I saw or heard or felt [or read] came not but from myself,” as Wallace Stevens might have said if he’d seen Twitter.
This is not what made me fall in love with literature in the first place. Back among the shelves of the public library my fantasy addiction led me toward an encounter with the Russian novel simply because Tolkein is next to Tolstoy on the poorly lit final aisle of the fiction section—which also providentially contained Turgenev and Solzhenitsen. I still remember my exhilaration—akin to the joy I felt at my first conversation in a foreign language—when I realized I like this.
Such lateral leaps are rare in the new cloud of data that provides me with reading material. Just as I’ve retreated from the public space outside my room—where foreign words are spoken, foreign food cooked, foreign customs observed—the new way of reading makes it possible to retreat from the public forum into a place shared only by people who think and write like me. The internet has made unlikely the very thing it promised to make possible: a pan-cultural marketplace of ideas.
But it does not have to be this way. I do not have to retreat. I can open my door and walk straight into Thailand. And I can seek out devil’s advocates to my own opinions: The American Conservative and The Front Porch Republic might fit the bill for me. I can do actual research, scan bibliographies, find authors with opposing viewpoints, read academic as well as popular texts. I can spread my media consumption across diverse platforms. I can read books recommended by friends with weird taste and books from countries I’ve never visited. I can read books thought to be “difficult”—Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Shakespeare for heaven’s sake! I can stretch beyond my profile. I can dig.