I don’t know where the commas go anymore
How I learned to read and write again in the digital era
Artist: Sweet Pill
Genre/ year: Emo/2022
Today, I’m switching things up with an essay.
In the late 90s and early noughts, you could catch me with a book 7 out of 10 times. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I used to dodge gym class and hang out with Mrs. Radha, our school librarian. In the lead-up to the annual school cultural event, when large parts of the day were often excused so that we could practice for the play or some other activity, I would be reading Asimov. The library was housed in the building that accommodated the lower and middle school classes; we could actually catch a view of the Coovum river from the large inset windows.
We weren’t allowed to sit in the deep trims of the windows, but Mrs. Radha would turn a blind eye on occasion. I was one of her favorite students, and for good reason: I would return my books on time, would mind the library when she took a break, and arrange the copies of Enid Blyton for the middle schoolers. One of my most cherished memories is sitting in that deep trim window space, reading “The Universe Explained” by Colin A. Ronan. Ronan went on to make the curious observation that a traveler falling into a black hole would have the weight of the entire population of Paris hanging on his feet. Mrs. Radha thought I should probably be reading less of Asimov and more of Archie and his Riverdale gang.
In 2006, as an undergrad, I was reading periodicals and magazines. Our library had air conditioning and comfortable seating spaces. You could bring in a notebook, a pen and nothing else. I would thumb through Scientific American, Nature Biotechnology, and other journals of high reputation. I would take notes of studies because I found them to be interesting and not because I had anyone to please. I was an insufferable knowledge vacuum cleaner, sucking up the metaphorical couch cushions for stray bread crumbs.
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I didn’t have a laptop, nor could I afford it. There was no need for one when I thought about it. We had textbooks that we bought, shamelessly photocopied, and photocopied photocopies of those photocopies. It was a Bojackian observation made 8 years before the Netflix phenomenon. We identified the head nerd in our class and managed to sweet talk or bribe them with cold cash for their class notes, which we then photocopied. The local folk in our college town took loans to buy Xerox machines which they housed in small hole-in-the-wall shops. When we went there, all we had to do was name the department, and our year of study and the man himself would say “Ah, you’re here for Priya’s notes on biochemistry, right? These are the latest.”
The internet hadn’t quite made its way into our little university space. We lived simple lives where boredom was allowed and it wasn’t existential. We had large gaping holes of time where we did nothing but eat, play sports, read, or sleep. We were preoccupied with attractive people, homesickness, preparations for Diwali, or weekend trips to Pondicherry. And when screens were present, time spent on it was limited because you could play a game for an hour or two at most.
The health sciences library at grad school in America is probably where the decline started. I would sit there, bathed in the sterile white light, listening to the subdued clearing of throats. I was studying all day and into the hours of the night. The library started feeling like a prison, devoid of joy. The one year I spent in grad school before dropping out was probably the most intellectually destructive: it quashed any joy of learning that I had up to that point. It was endless yellow legal pads of notes on creating knockout mice, testing gene knock-outs, knock-ins. It was all preemptive learning.
There was this brilliant American classmate who’d walk into class, ask smart questions, use creative methodologies, and just ace exams effortlessly. And no, this wasn’t some tip-of-the-iceberg “he’s really struggling, but he’s not showing it” bullshit. No, he was straight up, mercilessly intelligent and he was making my scholarship feel less earned and more like an egregious oversight someone made in the admissions department. He graduated with his PhD in just 3 years and is now a successful doctor on the US east coast. By now, I’d started to view books as means to an end—less pleasurable ventures and more transactional. I read a book, sacrificing 15 hours of time from my already finite, limited, unknown number of hours I have on this third rock from the sun, to gain an iota of knowledge that would probably help me achieve my goals. Whatever those were.
Existential dread had also crept in at this time. I was no longer a happy-go-lucky kid. I was someone who had failed at grad school (spectacularly so), wasted a lot of time, and learned the life lesson that grad school wasn’t meant for me. To this day, I haven’t recovered. I still have mild PTSD and feelings of ineptitude. In the heralding age of YouTube, podcasts, and social media, my damaged brain was doing the metaphorical equivalent of snorting steroids. I was briefly lost in the glitz of Facebook, the memes, the updates, the success stories of friends posing under the Statue of Liberty, under the Brandenburg Gate, under the azure skies in Lima, eating at expensive restaurants, getting married, getting…settled. When I tried picking up a book, I had to check if it was “worth my time”. I had to check Goodreads to see why Gandalf123 thought the piece was “[a] sorry failure in storytelling”, even when I had never cracked open the cover to read for myself. I was blogging before and I’d stopped that because in my mind I thought that the hours “wasted” writing could be better spent elsewhere. Doing what else, exactly? I didn’t think too much about it because I didn’t know the answer.
Screens became more prevalent now and my reading became more digital than analog and this bothered me. Writing isn’t what it used to be either. My mind has now become accustomed to the idea that whatever I type is meant to be consumed (not read) on a screen, and that anything beyond 3-4 scroll distances is “too much text”. Everywhere I see, people are forcing the “less is more” adage.
Digital and print ads these days are four words with periods.after.each.word. There is no rhyme, no rhythm, no iambic pentamer. Everyone wants you to cut to the chase, to spit it out, to get on with it, to take a dump or get off the pot. ‘My time is precious’ is the zeitgeist.
Sweet Pill captures the angst in their music video for “Blood”. It pits singer Zayna against a kid in a mock boxing match and the kid just destroys Zayna with punches, uppercuts, and elbow drops.
I will not ever show you
‘Cause I don’t think that I owe you that much
Hold out until there’s closure
Or punch a hole in the drywall
In my mind, Kid Nikhil is beating the daylights outta grown-up Nikhil, with a disappointed look on his face.
“You’ve forgotten how to read and write. When was the last time you typed something you were proud of? You don’t even know where the fucking commas go anymore”, he taunts. “How did I get here?” he asks before knocking my teeth in.
I’ve made a lot of progress these past 4 years. For starters, I don’t read books when the author’s tone doesn’t interest me. I’m reading online essays of note from Arts and Letters Daily. I’m kind to myself if I lose interest halfway. I go back and find something else that engages me. I find comfort in the words of Amber Sparks1. I conquered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But reading is only one-half of the equation. I started writing again. Experimented with short and long posts; messed about with punctuation. Ignored Grammarly on certain occasions and colored outside of the box. I’m in a group for copywriters on LinkedIn and they’ve been my pillar for the past 2 years.
It’s time for a rematch with Kid Nikhil. This time, instead of fighting, I’m seeing him as an ally. Maybe throw in the kid gloves (ha!) in Round One and go find a library somewhere with deep trim inset windows. Ditch Asimov and read Archie comics. Learn to enjoy reading and writing words all over again. Mrs. Radha would like that very much.