Spotlight On: Howard Axelrod
Howard Axelrod, Writer in Residence and Creative Writing Program Director in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, looks at “inner climate change” in his new book, The Stars in Our Pockets.
Howard Axelrod, Writer in Residence and Creative Writing Program Director in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, recently published a compelling collection of essays, The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age (Beacon Press, 2020).
Axelrod’s first novel, The Point of Vanishing, was named one of the best books of 2015 by Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Entropy Magazine, and one of the best memoirs of 2015 by Library Journal. It was also recently long listed for the Mass Book Award in non-fiction. In the past few years, Axelrod has also written opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Politico, and Salon. He is currently working on a new novel.
Axelrod’s most recent book emerged out of his decision to move to the woods of northern Vermont after graduating from Harvard College in 1995. During this period, he had no technology, and he increasingly mused about how his sense of time, place, and the quality of his attention and memory had changed. This belief was reinforced when he returned to life in the city in 2001, just as smart phones were taking off and increasingly affecting the social interactions of people. The Stars in our Pockets is Axelrod’s exploration of this phenomenon, most notably the human brain’s impressive but indiscriminate ability to adapt to its surroundings. As such, his book is both a portrait of and a meditation on what he likes to refer to as “inner climate change.” He argues that just as we are losing diversity of plant and animal species due to a growing environmental crisis, so too are we losing the diversity and range of our minds due to changes in our cognitive environment.
“The Stars in Our Pockets is a powerful personal and philosophical exploration of the effects of the digital revolution on the human experience,” says Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago. “His work exemplifies the role of fiction and non-fiction writers in helping to examine the complex questions of contemporary life.”
As the Creative Writing Program Director at Loyola, Axelrod encourages his students to discuss what each piece of writing is promising, and therefore how best to achieve those ends. Rather than focusing on the highest-wattage metaphor or most unlikely dialogue, students in Axelrod’s classes learn to train their attention on where promise and execution are most aligned, or where something unbidden in the writing is pulling the piece in another direction.
The goal is not to polish the piece at hand, but to observe mystery and manners in action, and to offer comments on why certain passages and decisions might or might not work. “The general spirit is one of communal exploration,” explains Axelrod, “with all of us feeling our way through the misty, dazzling, and never fully knowable territory of literature, and each student’s growing personal map contributing to the class’s communal map and vice versa.”