Sensory Overloads

People on TV like to relax by reading books and listening to music simultaneously. I saw Columbo doing it the other day as well as one of the characters on Arrested Development. Captain Picard is a sucker for it too. He likes nothing more than to chill out with a cup of the old chai while listening to Beethoven and reading a spot of Melville (which is actually a three-way consumption session!).

How the hell do they do that? Isn’t reading and listening to music at the same time something of a sensory overload? On the occasions I’ve tried to consume words and sounds simultaneously, it has felt oddly gluttonous like drinking two types of booze from the same double-beer hat.

Perhaps this is acceptable behaviour for a real culture vulture, but to me (to mix our metaphors now) is is like a cultural spitroast with every major orifice stuffed to bursting point with the throbbing, spunking cocks of music and literature (and maybe film and food as well, if you’re so inclined, you filthy whores). But for me it’s just too much and leaves me rather sore.

I do try. I have this idea that reading Thomas Pynchon while Art Tatum provides the phonics would be the very hithe of sophistication. All of the boring stuff – the self-consciousness and the drag of what my new chums Taylor and Cohen used to call paramount reality – would trickle away. I’d become a piece of still life: “Man on Couch”. But alas I simply cannot adopt this role. I find that the music interferes with my following of the book. Even if I’m just reading a plot-driven ‘yellowback’, I can’t concentrate with the acoustic winds rushing around me. Moreover, how is one supposed to appreciate any piece of music if you’re simultaneously engaged in a printed plot?

Perhaps people who do this are following an observed social script: taking cues from Captain Picard and his phosphorescent fellows. But it’s a script I cannot follow.

Are there really people who can deal with this? Are there any ‘spitroasters’ among this weblog’s readership? There probably are if the “currently listening to…” fields of my friends’ blog entries are truthful.

If so, do you enjoy both the music and the literature as separate things simultaneously (Michael Jackson + Stephen King) or do the two things sort of merge into a third entity or one synchronous experience (JacksonKing)?

I walked around the city centre this morning trying to find a cafe that didn’t play music, or at least one where the music was not so intrusive that I wouldn’t be able to read (currently reading the strangely plotless but wonderfully written Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington). I ended up in a Weatherspoons pub: loath as I was to give custom to an invasive chain outlet, the combination of 68p cups of good coffee and only the quiet rumble of lunchtime pub chat as a soundtrack worked very well for me.

On a similar line of thinking, I’ve dramatically gone off using my MP3 player. At first, the novelty of walking around the streets and listening to music at the same time (making a sort of personal music video by looking at the sad faces on the tube one-by-one while listening to something with ‘zipedy doo-dah’ irony) but after a while I just got sick of the sensory overload of trying to listen to the music while looking at interesting things (advertising posters, people, shop window arrangements, rooftop architecture) in the city. Perhaps other people just don’t look at these things or don’t find them as interesting as I do. What of the naturally occurring music of the tube or the bus or the street?

I think sensory deprivation will be a cultural paradigm shift: instead of greedilly shoveling every aspect of culture down their various maws, people will instead pay to sit in darkened boxes with occasional lights or sounds or snatches of music or film clips projected into it. It’ll be called a ‘dark tank’. What the hell, just call it a ‘Wringham tank’ after me. But it’ll happen. You’ll see.

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