I know I haven’t been blogging for a while. I was asked if I had given up on reading and had become focused on other things. That isn’t true. It was just there was a weariness to all things digital for me and I used the computer for things that I needed to do and then turned “the stupid thing off” and read. And as the 2019 Word on the Street Festival began to post their lineup of writers, people were asking me if I had read this-or-that writer involved in the event. And it was researching writers for that wonderful festival that I came across Lynn Coady’s brilliant essay Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age that I understood why I still read printed material during the digital era.
The degree to which the internet can feel like an unwelcome and nefarious intrusion into our lives depends in large part on the way we use it – and, more importantly, the way it’s used against us (deliberately or not) by the people in charge. In a 2008 essay called “Is Google Making us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr compares the internet’s reshaping of our lives and cognitive functions to the way the invention of the clock habituated us to think and function according to the dictates of its hands. (Citation) This, he suggests, paved the way for the dehumanizing strictures of the industrial age and the eventual treatment of human workers as automatons. Of course, the clock itself didn’t actually do that. The industrial age was the result of business and factory owners rejoicing in a technology they understood would allow them to measure and exploit worker efficiency down to the very second.
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My point is, let’s keep our eye on the ball here. If you have all the free time in the world and you spend it on Facebook, ok, that’s a problem – Mark Zuckerberg has clearly worked his dark mojo on you. But if you spend every spare moment frantically fielding tweets, texts, and emails because your employer requires nothing less, that’s another. Think about who, and what exactly, in either of these scenarios, is stopping you from picking up a book.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Coady a few years ago. It was at a guest lecture at Western University in London, Ontario. She gave an impressive talk at that time how she was balancing both her writing for television and fiction. (Afterwards, she mentioned she was impressed that I had a hard-cover copy of her book The Antagonists for her to sign. ) Coady talked about many of her views then. to which this book – a copy of the speech she gave to the Canadian Literature Centre’s Kreseil Lecture Series at the University of Alberta in April, 2015) This book does a brilliant job of looking at the printed word as the digital age blinks blindly at us all in the face. Coady mixes a perfect narrative with philosophy, modern cultural references and humour to make some excellent points.
(Twitter participants in a survey about reading) described a craving for the sense of immersion that reading gives them. Some people spoke of it as a kind of psychological privacy, no matter where they happen to be. More than one person use the word “escape.” Here, I believe, is where the book truly does have the advantage over the internet. The internet gives us a sense of communication, as does the book. And similar to the book, it offers up a means of “checking out” from time to time – a warm bath of a narrative to immerse ourselves. But what it doesn’t and can never offer really is a sense of complete and total privacy. Of psychic escape. When you hear about people announcing that they need to “unplug” for a weekend or conduct a “social media cleanse” or take a “Facebook break,” we understand what they are fleeing – the cacophony, the very connectedness that makes the internet such a revolutionary and seductive phenomenon.
So, yes, I am blogging again. And I am still reading books. If anybody truly cares about my weariness about things digital, they merely need to read Lynn Coady’s Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age. I know I am not alone in my love of books and being left alone. And I will be seeing her presentation at the 2019 Word on the Street Festival in Toronto.