From Digital Dependence to Analog Dickens
Practical Unmachining for the Christmas Season
Two days ago our home was cast into utter darkness. The lights flickered ominously and then succumbed to the freezing rain that had been raging since the early afternoon. All was black and disorienting, so much so that the first question that popped into mind was “Where am I?” While just a moment ago, everyone in our household was going confidently about their tasks, all of us were now grasping about blindly for flashlights and candles. We gathered around the kitchen table, last year’s Christmas candles in our midst. Once it was clear that this was not just a momentary fluke, we prepared a cold meal of bread, ham, cheese, and leftovers, and enjoyed an unusual candlelight dinner. There was no hurry. All our usual avenues for work had ceased to exist. So we just sat and chatted, ate some ice cream (which the kids quickly realized would be the first casualty of the outage). The lack of electricity drew us all together, and provided a brief taste of what it must have felt like for our ancestors sitting near the hearth on autumn evenings like these.
The blackout only lasted a couple of hours, but was long enough to make clear that the lack of electricity turned us into helpless whelps.
Just a century ago this would have been a day like any other, yet the harbingers of the Machine were already clawing at humanity. The sweeping changes of industrial revolution destroyed the home as workplace, tore apart families, and dehumanized workers as disposable cogs. Charles Dickens1 was one of the most prominent writers to decry the destructive impact of these conditions, especially on children. His writing can be considered a forerunner of Machine critique. Dickens would most certainly be horrified at the harm that children and youth now suffer as consequence of digital fetters.
“You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol = Quintessential Unmachining
In A Christmas Carol, the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge provides a most striking mirror of the misery that is born of social isolation and self-focus. His misanthropic behavior deepened over the years, because he was feeding his greed instead of nurturing his relationships. While we may not be piling our coins, we fall prey to increasing social isolation by focusing our value on status, followers, likes, or other nods of digital approval.
When viewed through the lens of the 3Rs of Unmachining, Scrooge, with the guidance of the three spirits, moves through recognize (by witnessing the effect his selfishness has on others around him), remove (rejecting his old ways of being), and return (by pouring forth his generosity and embracing his friends and family).
Dickens’s depth of understanding of human character, combined with the ability to demonstrate the process of change by reflecting on the past, recognizing the present, and looking ahead to future consequences, is a valuable tool in developing cognitive empathy, a skill that many teenagers, who are particularly prone to self-absorption, struggle with today. To quote from an earlier post:
In an age where teenagers’ technology use is linked to a decline in empathy, memorization2 can be an incredibly valuable tool to get into a character’s mind. You cannot easily memorize lines spoken by a character without feeling with that character, indeed becoming that character. This identification allows the teenage mind to develop ‘cognitive empathy’, which is an act that does not require moral affirmation of the other person, but is instead ‘an act of imagination in which one recreates the mental life of another inside oneself, and it happens even when the teen abhors the character.’
The Act of Reading
Reading any Dickens novel is salubrious for attention spans, language development, and gaining a deeper understanding of human nature. A Christmas Carol is the ideal classic novella to begin retraining our minds to attend to longer stretches of text, because the language is incredibly rich, the story engaging, and the length is not going to do you in. Here a reminder from Rehabilitating Ferals of the Digital Age on why reading longer texts is essential:
Near constant distraction by phones and other tech has serious side-effects, especially for reading. No wonder that by 2016, just 16 percent of 12th-grade students read a book or magazine on a daily basis…
With regard to actually training the mind to refocus and develop deep attention, reading books provides the best rehabilitation. This not only for attention’s sake, but because books allow us to dig our minds into the humus of time, people, and civilization as a whole.
In his essay In Defense of Literacy, Wendell Berry explains the importance of reading books as follows:
I am saying then, that literacy - the mastery of language and the knowledge of books - is not an ornament, but a necessity. It is impractical only by the standards of quick profit and easy power. Longer perspective will show that it alone can preserve in us the possibility of an accurate judgement of ourselves and the possibilities of correction and renewal. Without it, we are adrift in the present, in the wreckage of yesterday, in the nightmare of tomorrow.
In contrast, extensive knowledge of books and the wisdom transmitted through the authors behind them expands us into a fuller, more rooted human being. We gain intellectual nourishment, personal insights, and a deeper understanding of the world around us from tasting, eating, and digesting books. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis explains,
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors,” ... “We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.
One of the features of digital technology particularly disruptive to depth of thought, emotion, and attention, is that algorithms continuously feed us novel and enticing bits of information that can lead us into terribly dark corners3. Yet we grow most deeply not through a continuous stream of new information, but through repetition. Any parent will know the plea of a child to hear a story one more time, again, again, again. Children benefit more from repeated stories than an endless stream of new ones, because understanding moves from plot to deeper appreciation of characters, theme, and underlying motives.
A Christmas Carol has been re-read during the Christmas season4 countless times5. Our family has made it an annual tradition to read the tale, at times just within our own family circle, other times shared with friends to great laughter and acted voices, and most memorably, read out loud by parents with professional sound effects as part of a homeschool Christmas event.
“Reflect upon your present blessings -- of which every man has many -- not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings
Taking it into the World
In his recent postcommented, “The Machine can do its worst. Wherever we are, we have our own work to do, and we might as well do it with good cheer.”
Dickens shared a very similar sentiment more than a century ago in a letter to Wilkie Collins “Everything that happens […] shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain.”
A Christmas Carol provides a small, but concrete step for introducing good cheer into a dark time, reminding us to reach out to those in need, and turn our hearts outward.
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
from Doctor Marigold's Prescriptions by Charles Dickens, 1865
A Christmas Carol - for introverts, ambiverts, and extroverts
“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
What follows are some practical suggestions for unmachining with A Christmas Carol. All readings are provided in pdf versions, so you do not need to use any screens. Why not be bold and ask participants to power off their phones (or leave them at home)? In smaller circles, you may even wish to read by candlelight.
During our recent Unmachined Coffee House meeting,, , and discussed the question of tech resistance with regard to more introverted people, who may feel overwhelmed by excessive social stimulation. Keeping this in mind, we have categorized suggestions to be maximally adaptable:
Read an unabridged version of A Christmas Carol (you can download a free pdf I prepared here) or pick a copy up at your local bookstore (used bookstores invariably tend to have copies as well).
Assign different roles and read A Christmas Carol for Children to Read out Loud together as a family (the complete reading takes about 45 min.).
Invite some friends or another family to join you in reading A Christmas Carol for Children to Read out Loud over some hot winter drinks and treats.
Attend a public reading of A Christmas Carol. Many churches hold such readings throughout the month of December.
Bring together a small group such as a book club, church group, homeschool co-op, etc. for a reading.
Shorter version (approx. 45 min):
If you are particularly energetic and have organizational fervor, put on a public reading of A Christmas Carol. Here are detailed “how-to” instructions for arranging a venue, production planning, advertising and promotion, notes on the script, and reception ideas.
This abridged version (containing Dickens’s original words only) is perfect for families to read out loud together. It takes about 45 min.
For those who would like to dig more deeply into A Christmas Carol, there is the Classic Learner’s Edition which aims to develop a love of classic literature for young readers.
Classic literature often finds itself forgotten, abridged and whittled down, or otherwise left on the shelf because it is deemed somehow inaccessible. A great part of Dickens’s genius lay in his deeply rich, profoundly true, and often uproariously humorous use of language.
The Classic Learner’s Edition6 enriches reader’s experience by following the unabridged original text with a student read-aloud version (containing Dickens’s original words only) as well as deep, varied, and entertaining classical vocabulary study and includes:
Unabridged original text
A Christmas Carol – For children to read out loud
Classic vocabulary copy work with over 120 words
Truth or malarkey
Vocabulary definition match
Victorian parlour games
As a special Christmas bonus, I will offer the Classic Vocabulary Study to download for free:
Please note: Paying subscribers will can access the entire contents of the book as downloadable pdf files as part of the “Subscriber Christmas Special” .
Whatever the word "great" means, Dickens was what it means.
- G. K. Chesterton
In his biography on Dickens, G. K. Chesterton noted, “…whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us.” We agree that the story has profound potential to move us, to help us reexamine our relationships, and to redirect us outward toward others.
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We would love to hear your reflections, memories, or practical suggestions about A Christmas Carol!
Also, please feel free to share your Christmas traditions with other readers in the comments below!
While memorization is particularly effective, in-depth, or repeated reading also develops cognitive empathy.
Teddy Roosevelt read the tale to his family every year (and also quoted it when introducing programs to aid the dispossessed).
Please note that Amazon has a great variety of books called A Christmas Carol, and some other versions are included in the reviews (this book does not have pop-ups for example). Be sure to select the paperback (not hardcover or kindle) 8.5” by 11” version with ISBN 978-1988604145.