The Modern Times

Sensory Deficit Disorder: On the Disappearance of DVDs and Books

Last week, PasteMagazine.com published an article by film critic Robert Davis entitled Your DVDs Are Rotting, in which Davis argues that the DVD as we now know it will soon be as extinct as the VHS or cassette tape. In the face of the rise of online viewing, he argues, the DVD will not be able to stand long. And no, the Blu Ray is not the answer. As fantastic as the Blu Ray picture is, and as cute as those little discs are, even the almighty Blu Ray will eventually fade to oblivion. No, online viewing is the answer, according to Davis.

Naturally, Davis cites Netflix as the most prominent online purveyor of the world’s finest films. But he also notes such inventions as the Roku box, which is plugged into the back of your tv (just like the good old fashioned DVD player), and, of course, the now abundantly popular digital sales by companies like Amazon and Apple. Throw in the likes of Hulu and the multitude of other websites that make tv shows and movies available online for streaming and it’s no wonder movie rental stores (including large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video) are dropping like Starbucks franchises (rapidly and often, that is).

It’s so easy to find quality viewing material online, for extremely reasonable prices, why would anyone purchase a DVD anymore? Why would anyone bother heading to their favorite video rental store, used bookstore, or electronics shop to buy an old school DVD? Well, for the same reason that they still go to the movie theaters, for the same reason they go to the football game, for the same reason they go to a concert. For the experience.

In the age of YouTube and Hulu, of Bartleby and iPhones and Kindle, of itunes and emusic, the sensory experience of visiting the store is lost. We’re so focused on ease and speed and precision that we don’t care enough about the experience of a good old fashioned choice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to be able to simply fire up a web browser, head over to a bookmarked web page, scan through a few pages of more or less familiar artists, sample and download them right then and there, and all for a pretty reasonable price. It’s great for finding new music, for networking; it’s great for the bloggers.

kindle-handBut it’s a shame that future generations could miss out on the uniquely rewarding experience of wandering the aisles of a video rental store or bookstore, of the smells and sounds and sights and the hundreds of DVD or book covers. Of the ironically demanding pressure of deciding between Big Jake and The Magnificent Seven in less than an hour, without the aid of an online trailer or imdb. Go ahead, take a chance! Yul Brynner or John Wayne? Steve McQueen or Richard Boone? Sounds like the decision is made for you. But the art work….

What about the book stores? I imagine it will take the Barnes & Noble and Borders chains a little longer to die out than their video rental store counterparts, but it seems only a matter of time. The Kindle is growing ever more popular and the rate at which people are reading books online is rapidly increasing.

This is sad.

What could be better than perusing the crowded shelves of an old used book store run by a proprietor with a big, bushy mustache and yarns as tall as Paul Bunyan? What could be better than the musty smell of moth balls and dust and old, loved pages, crispy and torn from years of affection, written in and marked up and dog-eared? What could be better than the glorious discovery of a little known early novel by a favorite author or a hundred year old copy of poems by your favorite Romantic? What could be better than climbing into your car with a stack of new treasures under your arm, a sweet, sweet, hard earned collection of wisdom and history emanating from the very pores of each dusty page?

The only thing better is reading them.

We live in an age where our senses are bombarded from all angles, at all times. Yet, we don’t appreciate the simple pleasures available to them. They have become so overwhelmed, so over-crowded, so over-stimulated that they no longer have the capability to recognize those sensory experiences that are most unique, most inspiring, most physically meaningful.

oldbooksYes, it’s great to be able to quickly and easily read a favorite novel on a Kindle. But it’s important that we not forget the sensory wonder of holding a book in one’s hands, of marking spots and flipping the pages back and forth, of noting those passages that are meaningful, of realizing just how much effort and care was put into the creation of the thing. These are the kind of experiences that condition us, that allow us to escape the extreme busy-ness and sensory overload of the modern world. These are the kind of experiences that free us from the indulgent modern existence and allow us to revel in the simple, to take joy in the subtle, to explore the art of the commonplace (to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase).

When I was in high school I once complained to my dad about how I had managed to collect more books than I had time to read. My shelves were stocked with stories and theories I feared I would never get to. But he responded with a piece of wisdom I will never forget. He said, “the things we collect say a lot about who we want to be.”

I love this.

But I fear that as long as we are collecting downloadable links more than hard copy books and bookmarked web pages more than DVDs for the shelves, we are aligning ourselves with a modern ethos detrimental to both our intellects and our collective sanity. I wonder what we are saying we want to be. It is important that we be willing to take the time to enjoy small pleasures, to take part in commonplace experiences, to take joy in the subtle blush of a physical work of art much, and well, loved.

Otherwise, we will be creatures with unpolished senses, uneducated, unguided. We will be like children who simply follow lights and colors. We will be blind to many of the mysteries of the physical universe, our ability to see will be diminished. Our senses will be bombarded yet we will be unable to tell the difference between the various things we see and hear and taste and feel. We will be hungry for Ramen noodle when a delicious steak dinner would provide more nourishment. We will suffer from a sensory deficit disorder.

I, for one, am happy to keep on buying used. Don’t want your hard copies? I know people who will take them.

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