Those of us who grew up in the age of letter-writing worry about the future of writing. There is so much e-mailing, tweeting, texting, commenting, and posting that the necessary attention for any long-form writing, let alone letters, is dying.
It can even affect our reading.
I am all about reading. It’s what I do. Before the internet, I read at least six hours a day. I still read a great deal, but it is in a different, more itinerant style. Instead of reading one book, I always have a couple on the go. It is a process I call legendum interruptum (“reading interrupted” –you know, like coitus interruptus!). The temptation to check my e-mail (and what am I looking for?) was irresistible, until I realized my typical e-mail says: “Your order has been shipped!,” or “Flash Sale: English National Opera (Save 40%).”
After some of my longer, more futile sessions on the internet, I used to feel a bit like Mildred, the empty housewife, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
In Bradbury’s dystopian classic, the metaphor for not reading is not the internet, which was not yet invented, but addiction to interactive TV. Books are banned, and firemen do not put out fires; they burn books. The hero, Guy, a fireman, enjoys the burnings, but his personal life is empty. The morning after his wife, Mildred, makes a suicide attempt, she is so absorbed in a new big-screen TV interactive gimmick that she remembers nothing about taking the sleeping pills.
She explains the gimmick to Guy.
“They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ And I say–‘ She paused and ran her finger under a line on the script. ‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?”
Does this sound familiar? I am dismayed to say that it does to me. My comments on the internet are very much of the “I sure do!” variety. Friendly bloggers comment at my blog; I comment at their blogs. It is a supportive activity. Obviously I do not want to leave unfriendly comments. But I am embarrassed that I have little to say except: “Wonderful review!” or “This sounds great.” We obviously cannot write letters in response to every blog,But since I am not a witty one-liner, should I continue to comment?
I need to read, and really cannot do without it. On vacations, I do not care to hike the Berkie Trail or see Paris. No, I have spent vacations reading Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Anne Tyler in a cabin or, better yet, our favorite motel by the sea, a converted chicken coop!
When we stayed in the converted chicken coop, our days went something like this.
- Walk to the Big Zero (a convenience store) and buy two huge cups of coffee. Drink coffee and read till 10 a.m., when we get dressed to go the beach.
- Bike to the beach. Sit on a towel and get out a book to read. Do I want to go swimming? Heavens, no, I haven’t been in that germy sea in years.
- Go to J&B Subs for lunch. Sit on the picnic table and read.
- Go back to the motel. Loll on the couch (the rooms are huge!) and read until three, when you go to the beach again.
- Go to dinner. No reading at dinner, so we have to converse!
- Go out for homemade ice cream or coffee and read on the pier.
- Go home and read some more. Oh, except that night you watched that terrifying movie Flatliners, on late-night TV. A big mistake! I couldn’t sleep that night!
- Number of books read on vacation: seven. Number of swims: zero. Number of crabcakes eaten: six.
Do you know this kind of vacation? I’ll bet you do.
We’ve got to love the internet, but “do” it more gently. Another reading vacation is coming up soon.