Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to “the foremost modern scholar of American studies.” The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
The Internet was the big bogeyman, the great scapegoat of 2010. In September, I wrote about how social networking was perverting my friendships. In October Millions contributor Emily wrote about how it had eroded her attention span. And at a certain point, it seemed like every time my wife and I had friends over the conversation turned to the ways the Web was ruining all of our lives: how it was destroying our productivity, sapping our sex drives, devouring our precious time on earth.
But in 2011, I say enough with all this bellyaching! The Internet is just a thing that sits on my desk, if it sits anywhere at all. If I close the lid of my laptop, it can’t get me. If I walk outside it, can’t follow me. Blaming the Internet for the novel I didn’t write is a little like blaming a plush sofa for the marathon I didn’t run. Sure, the couch gave me a comfy place to hide while I was busy not being the man I want to be, but it’s hardly the cause of my problems. Replace the couch with a straw mat and suddenly I’ll run 26 miles? I doubt it. Scuttle the Internet and suddenly I’ll be the writer I’ve always dreamed of being? Hardly.
So, my resolution for 2011 is to stop blaming the Internet for all the ways my days go awry. There are two reasons, abstracted from recent experiences, that make me think this is achievable.
The first is that the Internet is not actually that addictive. I know we talk about email and Facebook and the latest headlines on ESPN like they’re allurements on par with strippers and cigarettes, but really? I spent the week around Christmas at my in-laws’ house which is kind of in the woods and where you can’t pick up a wi-fi signal unless you stand with your computer above your head while balanced on the top railing of the porch on a perfectly clear day. So I didn’t use the Internet much during that time, and if what followed counts as Internet withdrawal, then the Internet is pretty weak sauce indeed. A few times I fantasized about my inbox filling up with unread emails and on Christmas Day I wished I could have checked the Celtics score. But there were no cold sweats, no shakes or shimmies, no aching in my groin. What this made me realize is that the Internet does not have a strong magnetic pull of its own. It’s more like water, ingenious at filling negative space, at seeping into cracks. So in 2011, I’m going to stop fretting over the Internet and instead think about it the way I think about my bathtub: caulk and forget it.
The second experience took place a few days ago. It was in the morning and I was about to sit down to work and I told myself, “Today I’m not going to waste time on the Internet.” I’ve given myself that same pep talk on thousands of mornings but it resounded differently this time: Suddenly it seemed like such a plainly impoverished ambition. “That’s it,” I thought to myself, “That’s all you hope to get out of the day, to not refresh the nytimes.com over and over?” What I realized then is that the opposite of the Internet is not concentration. That morning I was indeed successful at staying off the Web, but so what? I fiddled with my pen, adjusted my socks, stared out the window, filled and refilled my water bottle, went to the bathroom. It turns out there are a lot of ways to fritter away time that don’t involve a computer screen.
What I’m after—what I think most of us are after—is sustained, focused engagement in a meaningful task. If only the Internet were the only thing standing between me and that. So, resolved for 2011, no more complaining about the Internet’s role in my life! If failures do happen to accrue this year, I’ll place the blame instead where it belongs: on my parents.
(Image: 2/365 from fenris117’s photostream)
I was looking at today’s installment of the Publishers Lunch newsletter (which I highly recommend for those interested in the book business, even if you only get the free version like I do), and something jumped out at me. News Corp reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings this week, including the regular update on HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch and company. Publishers Lunch got some additional color on the news from HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. It’s not linkable because it’s an email newsletter, but here’s the quote:Segment by segment, Friedman says the general books group continued to grow sales and profits significantly in the US, as did the children’s group. “There’s one area where we are having a lot of problems–religious publishing is in a lot of trouble.” Though religious books “have had a fantastic run for the entire 9 years I’ve been at this company,” Friedman observed, “it is starting to see hard times. Right now we are seeing heavy returns–product that just didn’t work, but more significantly, we’re seeing a contraction in the CBA, which is what we went through with the ABA.” Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life still sells more “than almost any other book” on the religious list, but Friedman has “concerns about the whole religious sector.”Emphasis mine. I was surprised to read this because, as Friedman indicates and as book industry-watchers know, religious books have been a huge seller in recent years, growing much faster than most other types of books.As I read this, though, it occurred to me that peoples’ reading tastes, taken broadly, might be a good indicator of the philosophical mood of the country. It may be that HarperCollins’ religious titles were duds this year, but it’s also possible that the fervent hold of religion — and when we talk about “religious books” we’re talking primarily about born-again Christian themes — on this country is loosening. I don’t want to read to much into this, but is it possible that, among the broader public, conservative Christianity was a cultural fad, with its own attendant movies, music, and books, and that people who don’t have too much invested in it will move onto the next thing that promises to help them with their lives? I’d be curious to see if there’s any other evidence out there that lends itself to this idea.
Hunky Viggo Mortenson (of Lord of the Rings fame) was a big draw when he made appearances at the bookstore where I used to work. He’s got some dedicated fans who love the fact that he’s an actor and a poet and an artist. If you look at an Amazon search for his name, his many books of poetry and art come up. But, as the New York Times recently noted, there’s another Viggo Mortenson, a Danish professor who has written a book about theology, much to the chagrin of wayward Viggo fans who end up picking up his book, Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue (note the angry customer reviews.)BookFinder.com Journal notes the article and discusses the frustration of running an online book database and dealing with multiple authors who share the same name.