Now available: civilization

DID you know, Mr. Mayes,'' began correspondence which recently invaded my mailbox from an especially florid computer, ``you need never again sit idly in traffic or weed the flower beds alone?'' Surprising as it may seem, I had never thought about the question. ``Now,'' exclaimed the computer, ``the company of Dickens, Tolstoy, Plato is on hand to be appreciated anyTIME, anyWHERE!'' Directly beneath the headline ``At Last The World's Greatest Literature Is Available On Audiocassettes!'' came assurance that busy people, like myself, ``for whom the acquisition of Culture is excessively time-consuming'' may consume it, anyway, in heretofore wasted moments. And isn't this splendid!

``These professional magnetic recordings, Mr. Mayes, will rescue you from mundane activities. They guarantee, might I add, your participation in what Socrates defined as `the informed life.' '' Like everyone, I suppose, I occasionally do foolish things. Challenging Socrates is not one of them. Naturally, I ordered.

A few weeks later, eager to experience ``the thrill of reviving pleasurable evenings when family gathered before the hearth to hear mother or father read aloud the latest installment of a Dickens novel,'' I popped a cassette into a player on the car seat beside me and squeezed into downtown traffic for the long crawl home after work.

It turned out I was less than ``SIMPLY ASTOUNDED'' by that ``VIRTUALLY UNRIVALED dimension of understanding denied every generation of readers from Homer to Hemingway.'' (I can only assume the computer intended to suggest Dolby sound is a comparatively recent invention.) On the other hand, I was ``in for a literary revelation quite truly beyond imagining.'' I doubt Charles Dickens himself could have imagined ``A Tale of Two Cities, Three Traffic Snarls, and One Motorcycle Race.''

``It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,'' intoned a prophetic reader from the cassette player, ``it was the age of wisdom, screech, it was the age of foolishness, tax-eeee, it was the epoch of belief, c'mon, now, lady, you really think you can turn left there, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it's green, dumb buddy; Go it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, honka-honka-honkaM DNM it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct VUROOOOOM-ROOOM-ROOM the other way. . . .''

Perhaps garden work, I decided, was more conducive to one's ``REMARKABLY CONVENIENT absorption of that enriching diversity of ideas, ARTFULLY ABRIDGED, which is Western Civilization.''

With gloves, hand rake, cassettes, and player, I settled late one afternoon beside a flower bed where Sergio, the neighbor's cat, snoozed atop my larkspur. As accompaniment for weeding tasks I had chosen to ``behold the wisdom of Plato stretching across the ages.'' Consequently, it surprised Sergio and me to see, instead, an opossum trot round the corner of the house.

Sergio sprang to his feet, arched his back, hissed, shinnied up a rain gutter, and perched on a roof beam like something out of ``The Hunchback of Notre Dame'' -- which, I recall, was not even written by Plato. This uncivilized distraction caused me to drop a cassette on the opossum's nose. After that, the only thing I beheld was ``The Republic,'' by then engaged with the opossum's left foreleg, stretching across the front lawn in an unreeling trail of magnetic mayhem.

I have no quarrel with the union of art and technology. Still, I do wonder what in all of Western civilization persuaded the otherwise sensible Socrates to endorse great literature as verbal Muzak for Mundane Activities. A TIME for focusing an undistracted mind . . . a WHERE beyond daily disruptions for repose of spirit . . . even the inconvenience of meditative page-turning -- are these antiquated impositions too heavy a burden for the contemporary intellect to bear?

Determined to find an answer, next evening I assembled at hearthside in the living room everyone I could commandeer (my mother, who remembers such evenings from childhood, and the family dog). I put away the cassette player and began reading aloud. As my computer correspondent would have it, this odd behavior, although unprofessional and unpackaged, was ``uniquely satisfying, indeed.''

As a matter of fact, participating in the informed life with good company and a great book became habit-forming. Our gratitude for this and subsequent time-consuming evenings at home is virtually unrivaled. The pleasure, might I add, is excessively unabridged.

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