It has been touching to learn, in recent years, of the happiness brought to so many by so little: the acquisition of a videocassette recorder.
One acquaintance after another has reported the joys of discovering the VCR. More than one has described the experience on a soaring note of awe and excitement perhaps unmatched since the poet John Keats' revelation, in 1817, that on first reading Chapman's translation of Homer, he "felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken."
I am bracing myself for another round of these joyous declarations, with the World Series just around the corner. Baseball fans who hold jobs will not have to miss any of the action. They will simply instruct their VCRs to tape each game; and at day's end the game will be replayed at each viewer's bidding.
For the VCR, as most of the world knows by now, has made it possible to record and view at a more convenient hour those sports, films, soap operas and other televised events which might otherwise have passed unseen.
About 18 months ago, persuaded that I had been deprived of life's profound pleasures, I bought a VCR and two blank videocassettes, and I vowed that "one day soon" I would savor all the wonderful visual material I'd been missing.
But thus far nothing has happened, and this is where the experience becomes puzzling and disturbing.
Nothing has happened because, quite simply, I have not used the VCR-- not even once --and the awful truth is that I cannot foresee a time when there will be two or three hours to watch videotapes.
For Better or Worse
Some people (I've been told) allocate only brief moments to their newspaper, and none at all to books or magazines. For better or for worse, I follow a reverse pattern. My TV watching is, alas, the visual equivalent of scanning headlines; after a brief glance at the screen, I usually turn away to a stack of reading material.
For TV demands a certain priority of attention: It crowds out other activities. Not everyone is barred by these limitations. My wife, for example, can read, jot reminder-notes on a pad and watch TV--all, presumably, without much difficulty. She carries this pluralism a step further, using a remote-control device to switch back and forth rapidly between channels, and thus to keep track of multiple programs.
But splitting the focus of my attention is a skill I have not yet acquired. If I watch TV, I cannot read; and for the most part I would rather read.
This implies no put-down of TV, no sneer about "the boob tube," no lofty attitude that reading is more cerebral than--or in any way an activity superior to--watching TV. Reading is not much more than a habit formed early; I have grown accustomed to the face of type.
The result: I have missed some universally shared experiences. For example, I have never seen an episode of "Dallas" or "Dynasty." Football games and basketball games might as well be taking place on another planet. The World Series is, without question, a major attraction. But will I see it? Not a chance.
Peculiarity of Taste
How does one explain this peculiarity of taste? More than 40,000 books are published every year. My modest ambition is to read only a fraction of the total--perhaps the most compelling .05%, which adds up to 200 a year or roughly four books a week.
To put in a day's work, read my daily newspaper plus a handful of other periodicals and a steady diet of books--all this consumes a full cycle of waking hours.
The result, then, is puzzling and disturbing. Practically everyone, it seems, is enjoying the dazzling technology of the VCR. Not only is it valued for entertainment but for its educational possibilities. Yet my VCR remains unused after 18 months. Obviously, I must be doing something wrong.
And I fret because there might be an answer, if only I knew where to find it. I wonder if there is an educational videocassette, somewhere out there, containing a mathematical formula to expand the 24-hour day to, say, 36 or 48?