Books

How Sherlock Holmes and Isaac Asimov Can Help Purge Your Social Media Addiction

Old books and even older movies can fend off the creeping anxiety of information overload.

DVD: Sherlock Holmes: Complete Collection
Distributor: MPI
Release date: 2011-03-21
Publisher: Tom Dohery Associates
Book: The End of Eternity
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publication date: 2011-03

Like a lot of people these days, I suspect, I'm increasingly freaked out by how short my attention span is getting.

This is a symptom of information sickness in our media age, and there's really no use complaining. It's TV. It's texting. It's Twitter. It's what it is, and it's not going to get better.

I've tried some stopgap measures working within digital culture, like the excellent Longreads initiative, which delivers long-form magazine style pieces to various mobile devices.

But the only approach I've found that really works is at once old-fashioned and strangely futuristic: the media fast.

For about three months now I've tried, to the best of my ability, to give up all forms of media on weekends. No laptop, no TV, no video games, no periodicals -- print or otherwise. It's a concept I was first introduced to in the novels of William Gibson. In his near-future books, the media fast is a trendy health practice undertaken regularly by hipster teens wary of information overload.

Sort of like a colonic, or that weird saltwater and cayenne pepper diet that keeps popping up. The idea is to purge your system of toxins, though in this case the substances are notional instead of digestible.

My particular media fast approach is a bit of a compromise, I admit. I'm allowed to read books, but they must be fiction. And I'm allowed to watch films, but they have to be at least 50 years old.

Anyway, that's the ideal. In practice, I've yet to actually make it through an entire weekend without breaking my fast, accidentally or otherwise. I end up popping off an email, or getting sucked into watching the last half hour of Aliens on TNT. For the 10,000th time.

But I'm getting better at this media fast business, and I can dutifully report that it's helping a lot with my attention span and – not coincidentally – my overall mood. I really recommend it.

Classic Films and Sci-Fi

And so in the spirit of media fasts, digital age fraternity, and cheap irony ... I have a couple of recent DVD and book reissues to recommend this month. As it turns out, two decidedly old-school personages have helped me ease into my new and earnest – if slightly compromised – regimen: Sherlock Holmes and Isaac Asimov. An odd pairing at first glance, but they actually go down quite well together. As well as seawater and cayenne pepper, anyway.

I'm a Sherlock Holmes geek from the wayback, so I was delighted when word came down Baker Street concerning Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection. This five-disc Blu-ray package, which hit retail shelves last month, collects all 14 Golden Era films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, from 1939 to 1946.

Rathbone will always be the quintessential movie Sherlock, just as Sean Connery will always be the best 007. For my money, anyway. Speaking of which, the collection is retailing for $130, but you can find discount deals online at around $80.

All of these titles have been packaged before, in various combinations, on DVD. But this is the first time the entire collection has been available in high-definition Blu-ray.

Twelve of the 14 titles have been digitally restored and remastered by the UCLA Film and Television archive, and the extras reveal what a labor of love it was. The technicians and historians had to scrounge up whatever prints they could find that had survived the years.

In some cases, old 16mm transfers were all that were available, or deteriorating copies of copies used by various TV networks. How these titles were finally stitched together is fascinating stuff, if you're at all interested in film preservation and restoration.

If you're new to the Rathbone movies, you can always just sample these individually on DVD, to get a taste. I'd recommend The Scarlet Claw (1944), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and the series' first installment, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939).

The Holmes-Asimov Connection

My other media fast staple these days is the collection of old science fiction novels haunting my bookshelves since 1989. One in particular stands out: Isaac Asimov's classic time-travel novel The End of Eternity was initially published in 1955, and in a way it's become lost in time itself over the years. Overshadowed by Asimov's famous Foundation and Robot series, The End of Eternity is mostly unknown to casual science fiction fans. Yet many serious devotees of Asimov's work consider it to be his single greatest novel.

Asimov was, of course, ridiculously prolific, having authored, co-authored or edited around 500 titles. Biographies suggest that the author conceived of Eternity in December 1953, after musing over a peculiar magazine ad. He more or less finished the novel in February 1954. According to my calculations, this is approximately the amount of time it takes me to get around to mowing the lawn.

The End of Eternity has been recently re-issued and – if you absolutely must – its available in various e-book formats, too.

It goes something like this: Our hero, Andrew Harlan, is an Eternal – a scientist in the benevolent organization operating a tract of cosmic real estate known as Eternity. Eternity is a sort of bubble that exists outside of time and space. Or, in the metaphorical approach of the book, it's like an extra-temporal elevator shaft running parallel to our reality of forward-moving Time.

Eternals are recruited from different eras of future human history and keep themselves busy by constantly tinkering with Time. After careful consideration, and years of number-crunching by their supercomputing machines, specialized Technicians like Harlan are dispatched into temporal reality to enact Reality Changes. These changes alter the flow of human events toward outcomes producing “the maximum good for the maximum number,” or to otherwise avoid short-term calamity.

Disclosing too much after this put things squarely into spoiler territory, as much of the pleasure of The End of Eternity comes from its old-fashioned mystery plotting. This might not be what you'd expect from Asimov's reputation, but the author actually wrote several mysteries and was in fact a member in good standing of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes appreciation society, “The Baker Street Irregulars.” (He's also, I'm pretty sure, the only person ever to have a Brooklyn elementary school and a Mars crater named in his honor.)

Together, Asimov books and Sherlock Holmes movies create a weird, sepia-toned pop culture alchemy. That's been my experience anyway. I keep having dreams that I'm a time-traveling super sleuth with muttonchops and a cocaine habit.

But it keeps me off Twitter and Facebook for 48 hours, and so I'm quite happy with the exchange.

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