I tire myself out checking e-mail. It’s not the best way to spend my breaks. How much better to stretch, run, or bicycle. There’s something meditative about half an hour of physical activity. You don’t think, and then you think again.
Sometimes there’s a little desperation about the pursuit of e-culture. One minute you’re googling wild fires in Idaho, the next you’re watching R.E.M on YouTube, and then you’re tweeting about politics. You’re looking for something online….and then half an hour later you’re looking again.
They say it’s about short attention spans. It’s also about long attention spans. Think of all the lovingly written e-mail and blogs we read in a given day. People love to write, and their day jobs don’t give them opportunities.
Imagine you work all day, say, as a paralegal. You’re yelled at for missing some detail…you were tired. And then you come home and turn on your computer and can say what you want at your blog. You write about theater, art, or books.
Occasionally, for lack of anything better to do, journalists criticize amateur writing online. Slate and the New York Times say social media are “too nice” and apparently keep critics from criticizing (how I’m not sure); and The Wall Street Journal says an unpublished study from Columbia claims there’s a lot of bragging on social media. I don’t “do” social media (Facebook and Twitter) because I have so much e-mail, but the blogs I read are neither “too nice” nor “bragging” (because I get a little bored with that). You have to be selective.
We need journalists to write journalism: it’s not about the internet. All their tweets and blogs aren’t going to save them from going out of business if they’re competing with their own print editions at websites. We need our newspapers, even the pathetic one I subscribe to, which, after firing all the good columnists, is now mixing editorial content with news.
Of course journalists aren’t the only ones who criticize the internet. Some of my favorite novelists do. They’re not worried about journalism, however: they’re worried about the culture of books.
In Doris Lessing’s Nobel speech in 2007, “On Not Winning Prizes,”
she addressed the need for books in Africa and contrasted the reverence for books in Zimbabwe with the dwindling use of a library at a famous boys’ school in London.
What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.
I love Doris Lessing dearly, and understand what she says about addiction. I know what she means about the whole day going by, but it’s not the blogging: it’s the etc. She’s right to be worried about the culture of the book. Although stats claim people are still reading, there are fewer bookstores, and we’re shopping online.
And even the act of reading has changed–it’s more fragmented.
In 2009, Philip Roth told The Guardian that fewer people read because of turning to the computer or TV.
To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.
Do we all finish David Copperfield in two weeks? No, that’s pretty fast. And many of us read more than one book at a time, and it may take a while to finish them: right now I have going Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Emma Hardy; Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman; and a classic which I will write about later. And then there are my library books for reading in the car.
Would it be better if online writers wrote books? Yes, undoubtedly, but our culture doesn’t allow everyone the time or attention span. And perhaps that’s why blogging, tweeting, and email are so popular. They demand less polish, but there’s still room to say what you think.