Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, in The Third Eye, describes how a Tibetan Lama would make themselves invisible. The trick, he said, was to concentrate so completely that you ceased to be present. The subtle energies that surround us – that give us away even when we are hidden – would be drawn inward. People would simply not see or sense you. You would become – effectively – invisible.
Tuesday has long been exposed as a fraud, along with his esoteric wisdom, but I was 13 years old when I read him, already fascinated by the east, and quite uncritical. And besides, I proved to myself that the invisibility trick really worked.
It happened one afternoon in the school holidays. It wasn’t planned. I was lying stretched out on the sofa in the living room while my mother vacuumed around me and, somehow, didn’t notice me at all. Apparently I’d become invisible – so much so that when, a little later, I went out into the kitchen, she jumped – convinced she’d been alone in the house.
The thing is I had been reading while mum vacuumed, as unaware of her as she was of me.
I suspect Coleridge was an invisible reader too. He wrote that, in his boyhood, his:
Whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner and read, read, read, – fancying myself into Robinson Crusoe’s island, finding it mountain of plum-cake and eating a room for myself and then eating it into the shapes of tables and chairs.’
I was thinking about this because of an article I read by Winnie T Frick, called I have forgotten how to read
In it she contrasts reading today – online and onscreen, across social media and endless news sites, with old fashioned reading. She writes:
Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.
In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.
For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.
This struck home. I too find it harder to read in the old fashioned way, sustaining that steady attention, the self forgetfulness that you need. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.
The good news is that I have given up Facebook and Twitter for Lent. The better thought is that I may not go back. Pass me my book.