Absorbed, not transmitting

Students with downcast eyes are mostly focused on a screen. Not this one.

Oliver Weiss

I can think of no more common a sight in a college town than that of students striding through campus or along adjacent neighborhood sidewalks with earbuds in place and eyes glued to a palm-held electronic device. They somehow negotiate pedestrians and traffic with aplomb, as if pinging their route with a sonar app.

I gaze in awe. How do they remain upright and unscathed? And how can they bear to relinquish the delights of walking from class to class fully attuned to their actual physical paths – to the endless social, architectural, and natural entertainments of an eyes-forward, ears-open journey?

But navigating disengaged is the new reality. Almost all of the Indiana University students I cross paths with on a regular basis have downcast eyes as they glide along, oblivious to the newly opening daffodils, greening trees, Bloomington’s venerable limestone facades, and one another. Clearly, stuff more compelling to them beckons from those reflective mini­screens. And who knows? I might have fit right into such a scene had smartphones and the like been around when I was in school. Our cordless connections reached just about as far as our Frisbees flew.

The other day, though, one young passerby proved an exception to his peers. The expression on his downturned face was contemplative, his gait deeply familiar and engaging. I didn’t actually know him, but I knew – with a glance at his face and posture – what he was doing differently, even before I saw the book in his hand: Not a Kindle, but an actual book held his attention as he ambled by me. The book was hardbound, its pages ruffling in the breeze and its two halves bobbling from its spine to his quiet, pedestrian rhythm.

It got me to wondering what made him look different from his peers and so familiar to me. He was lost in a world he held in one hand. Certainly there was the element of startled nostalgia – in my college days, we all used to wander about campus with books. These days it is a rare sight indeed. His thumb, forming the top half of a gentle human vise that secured the slim volume, was at rest – not tapping an icon or texting. He was all about absorbing, not transmitting. Nor was he squinting to decipher words on a tiny, shiny surface. His entire body was relaxed into the old multitasking exercise of walking with an open and wonderfully sunlit book.

It’s been years since I’ve done that, missing everything along my path en route to class or dorm. These days, I pay attention to my path simply to ensure that I remain on my feet. But I’m glad someone knows what an absorbing and centering exercise it is to lose oneself in a book, even along a trajectory to somewhere else.

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