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Jon Ossoff

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Do as Quebecers Do: Read a Book

Posted: 09/06/11 10:12 AM ET

It is a sunny, warm, nearly cloudless day in Quebec City as I view the garden overlooking the vast Plaines d'Abraham, that vast sea of green pastures and rolling meadows to the west about a mile from the old city walls.

Towering above me, is the statue of Joan of Arc, astride her horse and poised as ever to do battle with the British, just metres from where Generals Montcalm of France and Wolfe of Britain 250 years before were fatally wounded in a battle won by the British.

This is an area of deep Québécois pride and storied history, yet now on most days (except when it rains and it rains a lot here) it is an area of lazy picnics, of cyclists, of staccato bursts of Québécois French. It is also a domain of something else.

One day this summer I see something I rarely see in the United States -- not even in New York City where I live most of the year.

Two young women are unfolding a blanket, preparing to enjoy the warm afternoon rays. They reach into their bags, search a few moments, and pull out -- what? An iPod? iPad? iPhone? Laptop? No, to my surprise each reaches into her bag and pulls out a paperback book and begins to read. (And I am speaking of meaty, dense books -- not your I-can-finish-this-in-an-hour variety.)

It is a gesture of utter simplicity, so natural, and yet it nearly floored me with astonishment. It feels so much like a retro moment. And it was a gesture that would play out countless times in this city -- one of the oldest European settlements and the one of the only French-speaking enclaves in North America.

So I sit and I observe for awhile. What am I seeing? Nothing, really. There is no continual flow of information between the two, no exchange of speech, no pointing to a screen, no chatter. Simply two people sharing the same physical space while pursuing their own inner cognitive life. And forming their own ideas independent of the other.

Several recent articles including the New York Times' "The Elusive Big Idea" by Neal Gabler have deconstructed the role of the Internet, Twitter, and various electronic devices in essentially distracting and perhaps even reshaping the mind. That these devices sacrifice the generation of ideas for the sake of largely shallow information has been discussed in other forums as well (The Shallows by Nicholas Carr).

The Buddhists have a phrase called 'monkey mind'- - our tendency to jump from stimuli to stimuli just as a monkey jumps from tree to tree seeking greater variety, more miscellanea. Never satisfied with where it is or what it's doing at any given moment, it bounds from branch to branch as we currently ricochet from email to tweet to Facebook message and back again ad infinitum.

Does our continuous use of electronic devices contribute to an even greater degree of 'monkey mind?' Think of information as superficial -- horizontal if you will; knowledge, or the generation of ideas, assumes a more vertical path. The term 'websurfing' is most telling here. To surf is to skim or skate along a horizontal plane -- the lack of depth precludes one from maintaining a vertical focus or grasping anything other than its rudimentary aspect. Our electronic communications do appear to reinforce those divergences.

Even librarians in the U.S. I've spoken to say their readers are less likely to finish a book on a Kindle (distraction) and more likely to divide their attention between a fiction and non-fiction work at the same time (monkey mind).

These thoughts run through my own 'monkey mind' as I walk through the walled city of Quebec and pass bookstore after bookstore and person after person engaged in his/her own vertical literary plunge. This is a population that reads -- no devours, books. Yes, there is the occasional James Patterson or John Grisham diversion, but mostly there are essays, current events, history, political philosophy, social commentary. These are the books one sees at parks or in the hands of walkers in a culture well versed in its own history, politics, and place in the world.

I have found that Quebec City has more book stores per population than any other city I have ever visited (notwithstanding Santiago, Chile) and in French Canada, books do not come cheap. Even paperbacks can be two to three times more expensive than the paperback books in the U.S. (probably because the market is smaller and distribution costs run higher), yet the Québécois support these stores aplenty.

Walk down Rue St. Jean in the Saint Jean quarter or St. Joseph in Saint Roch and book stores are abound alongside restaurants, galleries, stores, and bakeries. E-readers are noticeably absent. People simply prefer to read their books.

Walk down these same streets and you will also notice something else. Rare is the experience of being plowed over by a distracted texter or phone user -- smart or otherwise. The ubiquity of these devices is so much less here than in large U.S. cities the contrast is unmistakable. These are simply not citizens predisposed to follow the herd.

Even their 'flashmobs' are unique. Compare the recent violent Philadelphia flashmobs to this Quebec recycling scene and the contradistinction couldn't be more unsettling.

The former dispenses information (time and place) in the absence of any useful idea, while the latter dispenses information in the service of a greater idea. Vertically exploring the mind in lieu of skating on the surface will do that for you.

Which lends a modest idea of my own -- a flashmob for us Americans based on the Québécois principles of autonomy, self reliance, and impudence.

"Tonight at 8:15, go to a restaurant of your choice, have a good meal, a glass or two of red wine, enjoy intelligent conversation, share ideas. Oh, and if you prefer -- bring a good book."

Spread the word.