My trip to Boston a few weeks ago had a decidedly literary theme to it. The day after visiting The Mount, we went downtown to check out the Boston Book Festival. Held in the Boston Public Library and spilling out into the neighboring Copley Square area, the festival was made up of outdoor exhibitors and vendors (which, to be quite honest, were underwhelming) and a series of literary talks by an array of authors ranging from the big name to the more academic. We sat in on one of the latter, a lecture called "Great Brits and Books" that was put on by the British Consulate.
The talk was interesting, if a bit unfocused. Rather than keeping to one unifying theme, the panelists jumped around among topics that were related to their own personal areas of specialization--Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and J.M. Barrie. Although I wouldn't say that I learned anything groundbreaking, a few interesting tidbits of information did come up. For instance, one of the scholars on the panel has studied the way that books were used and viewed in Victorian times. One specific detail she discussed was they way that books provided freedom and escape to women who had narrow roles in society at the time. My immediate assumption when she raised this point was that she was referring to freedom through exposure to new ideas in books, but no. It turned out that she was referring to something much more literal--the way that holding a book up in front of her face was like a "do not disturb" sign for a woman back then, allowing her to briefly escape household or societal distractions. The discussion eventually wound its way around to the idea that cell phones are today's cultural "do not disturb" sign, which is very obviously true to anyone who's ever ridden public transportation during rush hour. People who pore over their phones on the subway always give off the impression that they're either really busy, really important, or really diligent, forced to stay connected at every moment and keep up with emails as soon as they come in. It always amuses me when I get closer peek at their screens and realize that most of them are just playing games. Of course, sometimes I'm guilty of using my phone to pass the time, too, but more often than not I just silently laugh to myself as I go back to the book I'm reading.