Manual Transmission

David Clemens

Last April I sat in Automatic Slim’s Restaurant and Tonga Club in Memphis reading Lord Jim on my iPhone. The text scrolled faster or slower depending on how far I tilted the screen. Last week, rummaging through my basement, I found my Signet Classic paperback of Lord Jim, a textbook for a 1970 grad school course in Conrad, filled with yellowed pages, spidery underlines, and cryptic notes. Seeing the cover, holding the book, and turning the pages brought a flood of memories—the classroom, Dr. Singh Dhesi, frequent teacups of Earl Grey tea, long afternoons with a book in my hands. Suddenly, my college cats, Tabby and Mopsy, were alive again, and I was still driving my 1955 Buick . . . Curiously, a few weeks ago, the poet Rosanna Warren told me she had read The Hand wherein neurologist Frank Wilson argues that the evolution of the human hand parallels the evolution of the human brain. Wilson thinks that the complex capabilities of the evolving hand may have necessitated corollary brain development and even language itself. If he is right, I wonder if today’s thumb-typing, scrolling, and swiping fingers might produce an atrophy of the hand-brain connection and contribute to students’ steadily declining language facility. Rosanna thinks so because she has her poetry students do manual manipulative tasks lest they become dis-embodied, as we all are when online. Should I have students embroider? Screw birdhouses together? I don’t know. What I can say, with certainty, is that my iPhone dutifully reproduced Lord Jim electronically and backlighted, but with no evocation, no reverie, and no memories at all.

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