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.
The Internet is forever distracting me. Sometimes it’s difficult to interact with so much content I feel I know so many lovely people on line but yes sometimes I could definitely do with a converted chicken coop myself.
I would like to go back to that converted chicken coop, if it’s still there!
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I have recently taken to turning off my computer so as to get things done, including reading. It is a great relief and I can always check my messages on my iPhone! Is feeling connected an illusion? Well, not always, but I find my face-to-face conversations have improved.
Yes, I do the same! Having the thing in another room helps, too. I do think there are real connections online, but I do end up reading articles that don’t even interest me, just because I’m there!
I love the sound of that vacation, and I so agree that the Internet gets in the way of reading. It’s easy to slip into browsing and find that hours have passed. I need to learn to turn off the PC!
Yes, one gets tired of the computer! A “reading vacation” is always good, and after my London trip, that’s what i’ll be doing!
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I know that I’m not reading anywhere near as much as I used to and also know that you are right when you say that the computer is probably at the bottom of this – or rather in my case, the tablet. It is just so easy to carry around with me and quite often I will be using it to read on anyway as it is so much lighter and takes up so much less space than a hardback. However, once I use it to look up one thing I seem to get obsessed and go on to look up half a dozen (hundred!) others. I used to be noted for my powers of self-control. Not many people can boast that they dropped half their body weight and then kept it off for the next forty plus years. I need to find that same self control where the web is concerned.
Yes, I do worry about the amount of time my daughters spend glued to their iphones although people were perfectly capable of ignoring each other in the 70s when I grew up!
I only blog once every six weeks or so now because of work etc etc so it’s actually a real pleasure to drop in to my favourite book blogs and talk books. I feel like I’m hanging out with my people. But yes, sometimes you just want to turn the damned computer off!