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Published: Mon Apr 13 2020
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The Examined Life: A Review of Howard Axelrod’s The Stars in Our Pockets

The Stars in Our Pockets by Howard Axelrod. 169 pp. Beacon Press, 2020. $23.95

 

Books, like people, have their unique fates—their zodiac. Written in one context, they arrive in another, and every now and then a special convergence takes place. Like now. A book that in some other time would be read as a quiet reflection on the general state of things—how it is with us—delivers its messages with an unexpected force.

Howard Axelrod’s The Stars in Our Pockets comes to us as a sequel to his previous book, The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, a lyrical account of his retreat to the woods of Vermont after an accident that caused him to lose sight in one eye. He experienced, and described vividly, a prolonged shock of silence and slow time, followed by a gradual personal reclamation. Thoreau can’t be ignored here. He went to Walden because he wished  “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” to see if he could learn “what it had to teach.” Axelrod moves in the man’s shadow, and there are worse places to move.

The new book, in the same key as The Point of Vanishing, shows the difference context can make. The first appeared in 2015, in one kind of world, whereas The Stars in Our Pockets arrives in another. I don’t just mean our changed political configuration, but a world that is experiencing the radical intensification of so many previous crises—massive global displacements, ecological disasters, gun violence,  and the burgeoning  of surveillance culture. [To this list I must now obviously add the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus—see postscript.]

This chaotic turbulence is—no surprise—wreaking its effects on our inner lives. It feels much more difficult to get our bearings. Anxiety rushes through the nervous system of social media and then saturates our private lives. Ever more deeply implicated in large-scale systems we can’t control, we all feel the lines blurring between real and virtual, fact and fiction. If I generalize too broadly about the state of things—very well, then, I generalize.

A book like Axelrod’s needs this kind of big-picture set-up. His meditative, yet impassioned sensibility finds us in our time of distress. Caught up as we are, for better and worse, in our virtual collective, buffeted by pings and links, we have become fearful of nature and our place in it and risk losing of our most fundamental coordinates. Axelrod, with his experience off the grid, and his gift for synthesizing that experience with his attuned awareness of our moment, reaches us with a fresh sanity.

The book is short, often personal, and it gets right to the point. In his Introduction, Axelrod cites Gerald Edelman’s theory of neural Darwinism and the concept known as Hebb’s rule, that “cells that fire together, wire together.” Plasticity. How we live significantly determines how we are, what we become. Where Darwin’s modifications were incorporated over centuries, our systems are pliable enough to change shape in a matter of years.

This premise, a core tenet of neurobiology, underlies Axelrod’s reflections, presented in six chapters that assess our existential situation from different angles. They develop for the reader the insights that followed the shock of his return from rural isolation—a version of the “rocket man” scenario. Axelrod takes on, in order, our relation to place; to time; our contexts of living; attention; identity theft; and human interaction. The abstract concepts feel alive in his smartly paced narration. The reader’s sense of revelation comes from the accumulation of perspectives and seeing how each reflection reinforces the others and impinges on our collective worldview.

Axelrod has designed The Stars in Our Pockets as an informal self-help manual, with chapter sub-headings like “Why It Matters,” “Threats,” and “What You Can Do.” This smacks of the late Walker Percy’s strategy of imposing structural grids on his otherwise freewheeling metaphysical rambles. In my view it wasn’t necessary then, and isn’t now, the more so that Axelrod is ultimately advocating against the idea of the grid. His musings, often wrapped in personal anecdote, need no formal compartmentalizing.

The opening chapter, “A Map to Our Maps,” addresses, among other things, the technological prostheses—like GPS, like Siri—that cut many of us away from our former sense of place. We are coming to depend on passive and unengaged “route” knowledge, sacrificing a sense of connection to the world on the other side of the windshield. Opposed to route knowledge is survey, or overview, knowledge. If we continue to hand off to our digital guides, Axelrod asks, “[W]ill we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?” Will we still be open to the thrill and discovery that comes of getting lost? This is not a startling insight by itself, but Axelrod weaves together several family anecdotes to underscore the impacts of this particular transition. Reading, we don’t just consider the concept, we feel its impact psychologically, in terms we can relate to.

So far as time is concerned, Axelrod rehearses the centuries’ old segmentation and standardization required by industry and commerce, the implementation of Frederick Taylor’s stop-watch tyrannies in the workplace, and then goes on to ponder the hazards of both acceleration and overload. Again, he has an anecdotal way of bringing this home. He describes a striking moment when he was still in school and assigned to read James Joyce’s “Araby.” He discovered, three paragraphs in, the genuine beauty of the language and what he felt was a lost tempo of living. “When Mom called for me to set the table,” he writes, “I remember descending the stairs slowly, feeling unsure of my surroundings as though having returned from a long trip away.” The sentence could work beautifully as a self-reflexive epigraph to the book. Axelrod then goes on to celebrate slow time, durational time, where things are taken in singly, not in a blur, and where one can recover a natural human pace and attention span—one of the fruits of his time in the Vermont woods.

The chapter entitled “Frames” comes to center on the question of wonder. Axelrod inveighs against Google for wanting “a monopoly on the whole wonder market,” delivering technologically luscious images that threaten to sideline the originals and then selling these images to the susceptible as tokens of the experience itself. “Real wonder,” Axelrod writes, “tends to come when the unknowable flashes through the known—the mystery of our place in the universe made tangible in a meteor shower, or a sudden silence in the trees that seems to let us in…”

The contrasts Axelrod draws are often illuminating. He remembers, for example, stopping at a friend’s house on his return from the woods and watching five hours of TV. He is “entranced by how everything on the channels corresponded with each other…how the speed of cuts and camera angles corresponded across the channels, how what I was looking at seemed to be a unified world, with a unified assumption not just of what to look at but of how to look.” As with TV, one might theorize, so with the whole digital universe.

This anecdote brings together two of Axelrod’s key themes. One—it has its own chapter—is attention. Strange to say, but reading it feels almost redundant: the whole of the book, the underlying premise and presentation, has been about attention from the start. Both The Point of Vanishing and this book are the product of attention and model it for the reader. Now that he is back in the world, albeit a somewhat reluctant participant, he cross-examines himself. “The more attention I give my newsfeed,” he writes, “the more rapid I expect the interplay between voluntary and passive attention to be.” Axelrod is everywhere at war with passivity.

Submission to our systems amounts to an erasure of personal independence. When coupled with the incessant poaching of identity by cookies, hacks, and surveillance systems, individualism itself is increasingly put at risk. This is, for me, Axelrod’s other underlying, but unstated, theme. Self—the awareness of personal singularity and the ongoing search for the meaning of one’s own experience. The author does not have a chapter devoted to this, but—again—he doesn’t really need to. It is manifest in his way of looking at things, as well as in his tone as he offers his anecdotes and confidences. The “I” that marches through these pages is unique and free-standing—an advertisement for all he writes about. In its presence, I sometimes experience a kind of “reader’s envy,” wanting to be having those thoughts and realizations myself, even as I’ve had a number of them before.

Axelrod makes use of one other organizing feature for each chapter. He provides, as a kind of epigraph, the etymology of whatever is the theme word. Giving us, say, “Attention span (Attention from Latin attendere, ad+tendere, to stretch towards; and Span from Old English, span, to stretch).” Etymologies are always of use—they can break open the settled crust of a word and get us back to the time of its coining, and tracing them is a renewing action. But they serve another, almost subliminal, purpose here. Etymologies are a kind of precis of history, showing not only how things changed, but also how they were originally “rooted.” Axelrod’s larger point in The Stars in Our Pockets is that we are in danger of losing not only the old ways, but also the instincts and habits that they fostered.

Change is change, yes, but societal and cultural continuity is vital as well. If we imagine, with wild configuration, Thoreau as one parenthesis, Axelrod could be the other, the two holding decades of social evolution between them. Thoreau appeared when America was still young, a seer who could caution how the newly invented telegraph could alter our natural sense of time and space; Axelrod shows us what that alteration now looks like. He makes clear what our new condition portends, and also makes clear, by his own example, that those former ways fronting the world are not yet completely lost. These are the stars in our pockets, the constellations that have guided our navigation for so long.

 

Postscript: I wrote these thoughts on The Stars in Our Pockets shortly before COVID-19 hit and right away began to change our assumptions about everything. While so many books, no matter their quality, have been shouldered off into a—hopefully— temporary irrelevance, others have gained striking new resonance. As I wrote in my opening, books have their own fates, their zodiac. Axelrod’s, in its heartfelt call for a Nietzschean re-valuation of values—a bottom-up and top-down re-examination of our terms of living—is even more vital than it was those few weeks ago. If we’re in the midst of a Thoreauvian sequestering, we’re also being given the opportunity to carry out a Thoreauvian introspection. How will we live in what is now suddenly a new era? What will be our values and our sense of purpose? _The Stars in Our Pockets _would serve us well as what used to be called a vade mecum—a guide to follow.

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Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)

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