Morning. About 8:30. We were in my truck. I was driving. My son was in the front seat beside me. No one else was with us. I drove slowly—very slowly—because of the fog. Thick and dense fail to describe sufficiently that fog. I don’t remember fog that formidable before. The irony is that it was in the fog I saw something clearly. The fog had not just descended upon us; it had taken over. We were its captives. Follow me.
My son was on his phone. He was streaming YouTube videos of piano riffs he likes. After he watched one several times, he said, “Dad, look at this,” and brought his phone towards me. “Goob, I can’t right now. I’m driving.” And he watched the video again and narrated what he thought of as the highlights.
I had spent the week before that morning reading the novel White Noise by American literary fiction writer Don Delillo. It was my first time reading this novel despite its reputation as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Underworld and Libra are probably the other two of Delillo’s novels that have earned the most critical attention.
Technology affords countless luxuries, for sure. Obviously, I use the internet like millions of others do. However, I am not alone in thinking that we have forfeited something in that exchange. Because we can use the search engine of our choice, if we have a question or just want to get lost in entertainment, we can browse for it online. No matter how inane, insipid, vile, etc. we can find it. There is no end to the distractions. If distraction is your aim, the internet is your weapon.
But there are a few of us who engage in an antiquated means of understanding the world: we read. As some nowadays quip, it’s the old-school way. You know, books. Actual bindings with stories of boys like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; women like Elizabeth Bennet and Tess and Lady Macbeth; killers like Raskolnikov and Anton Chigurh.
But now we have YouTube and countless other means of distracting ourselves, and we can use these to such a degree that we lose the ability to see, to think, to use our imaginations, to dwell upon the deep things of life that enrich us by way of reading.
I am not blind to the irony: I am using the internet to partly write about the dangers of the internet. But my goal is not to be legalistic here, only to suggest that if we as a culture forego and forsake reading deeply–if we think that surfing the Web is learning, we have lost a lot. Which brings me back around to the fog.
As my son and I descended from our house onto a state highway, the fog had not thinned at all. We could see only a few feet beyond my front bumper. It was so captivating, my son even remarked, “Dad, I need to take a picture of this.” And he did. He used the same phone he was using to formerly watch YouTube videos of piano riffs. But he had noticed something out there—something that he and I were experiencing together that didn’t involve the internet or a video. We were seeing life unfiltered. We were descending the mountain; we were bathed in fog; it was ghostly and ethereal; it was like, well, something from a book. It was like what Delillo was aiming at in White Noise.
It was a moment where I realized that sometimes the most meaningful moments of our lives are not dependent upon the Web. This one came as I drove slowly in the morning fog, a novel about the costs of distraction and the emptiness and shallowness of contemporary life in the back of my mind. My headlights were two white lances laboring to slash through the fog. But my boy noticed. He noticed. He saw the beauty, felt the mystery, lived for a few moments without the artifice of a video.
And yes, he took a picture. But it does not do that morning justice. I guess, in other words, you had to be there. It was so good, so important–well, it was like something you experience in a book. Because of the fog, I saw clearly what I think Delillo explores in White Noise. Because of the fog, my son and I both focused on the strangeness and mystery that fog engenders. Because of the fog, I saw my boy look up and out at the world and our place in it, instead of down at his phone. And I was glad that I had to drive slowly. I was thankful to be there. I was thankful that simple things like foggy mornings, driving through the hills, seeing a boy’s eyes register that this was not just a video to stream but a real moment to live—yes, it was like the beginning of a good story, when there’s fog, mystery, but then clarity.