A Bridge From Cyber Chaos to the World of Words

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I am forever trying to make sense of how to balance the world of books (which sit quietly, unobtrusively on tables) and the world of screens (which flash and bing and ping noisily for our attention). To me, they are like two different kinds of children.

Today, I was reading Madame Librarian’s Blog, and I saw that she had stumbled across something wonderful that struck a chord for her, and also struck that same place in me! She found a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen where he says:

I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.

Franzen goes on to discuss how people who love books love to hold books, the whole experience of a book. I, personally, am a sloppy margin scribbler. I turn back corners and make notes. I underline and star things. No one wants to borrow a book after I have read it, and if I have ever borrowed someone else’s book, I usually have to buy them a new copy. Not because they wouldn’t take back the marked up copy, but because I simply can’t give back the book once it has become part of me.

This is probably partly why I have resisted getting a nook or a kindle, even though numerous people have told me I would love it. That I could still make my marginal notes; they would just be typed, and all my comments would appear in chronological order and be easily found. I understand all of this. It’s just, well . . . I just finished reading a book called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein. And frankly, it caught my attention. The premise of the book is that parents and educators have been sold a bad bill of goods, promising that computers will help make learning easier and more enjoyable for students. They have also been promised that their children’s test scores and literacy will go up as a result of this new technology: that the whole world is at their fingertips.

The author points out, however, that this is not the way teens use the Internet technology that is available to them. Teens don’t independently look up information about history or art or follow politics or listen to any music except popular music.  Young users have learned to upload and download, surf and chat, post and design, play games and buy things online, but they haven’t learned to analyze a complex text, store facts in their heads, comprehend foreign policy, take lessons from history, or spell correctly. They require teachers, parents, religious leaders and employers to teach to pull them from their adolescent ethos towards a more mature ethic which will expose them to the idea of serious work, civic duty, financial independence, personal and family responsibility.

And as ironic as this is going to sound coming from an online blogger, I am trying to minimize my screen time. Yes, I will continue to blog, but I’m trying to live a little more unplugged because I truly believe (and now have well researched and documented support, thanks to Bauerlein) that all this screen time is leading us down the path to a place of incivility that breeds incompetence in school and the workplace. I see people losing their ability to connect to each other. And, as a teacher and a writer, I want to be that bridge, so I have to work on being that bridge.

Franzen’s interview came at the right time for me. As I continue to write on a manuscript that has been like birthing an elephant. And by that I only mean it is taking a really long time. One day, I would like to hold that book in my hands, and I would like to dream that somewhere, someday, someone might write all over it. Underline. Make stars. Question marks. Pen, “This sounds like me” in the margins.

I want to be a real (metaphoric) bridge, though. Starting Wednesday, September 8, 2010, I plan to help my undergraduate students figure out how to pull their own stories from out of themselves and put them on paper; show them that the conventions of Modern Standard English matter, that an outstanding vocabulary can help them get ahead.

I don’t think it is possible to be a cyber-bridge. You have to really be present to help people make their journey, especially when they are scared. And, believe me, when you ask 18-24 year olds to put away their technology — even for just 50 minutes — they are scared.

So I will gently take their hands and pull them away from their addictions and try — for 15 weeks — to get them to let me be their bridge.

I just hope they don’t walk all over me. Or that they, at least, tread lightly.

13 thoughts on “A Bridge From Cyber Chaos to the World of Words

  1. You’ve put into words what is so difficult for some of us to describe. I *like* the idea of a kindle/nook/etc., but feel more connected to the reading if I can hold the book, smell the pages (I know, weird. But – ever open a brand new book and inhale the scent of – well, brand new book?), TURN the pages – make notes, etc.

    And computer technology – it definitely keeps us isolated. It’s so much easier to text to someone across the room than to walk over and have a conversation, verbally. We can “communicate” in so many venues online – blog to blog, social network sites, etc. – but it’s one sided. Instead of almost instantaneous responses, within seconds of verbalizing something face to face, we get minutes to hours to days later responses to whatever we post online. There is no emotion in the context of what is posted – I can’t hear someone say “My life sucks!” online and hear that they’re joking, distraught, regretful, calm, sarcastic, etc.

    To make the connection from “inside me” to the “inside” of someone else – you can do that with the written word, but it can’t always be done in cyberspace. Put that pen/pencil to an actual sheet of paper! You might not write as quickly as you can type, but that’s ok. Enjoy the process.

    All right – this has rambled and gotten disconnected (thinking as I type – a hazard of cybercommunications). Hope it makes some sense to someone, somewhere!

  2. I like and agree with this. I closed my FaceBook account because I realized how much time it was taking up in my life. Besides do I really need to know every little thing my friends are thinking every hour of the day? So much time is spent online paying bills, writing emails, research and the list goes on. I also wanted to set a good example for my kids.

    I have taken a lot of time to show my daughter how to write a proper letter, a school report or book report and how to utilize the internet when needed. I home school and I know there are a thousand and one online home schools out there, but I really think there is something to be said for getting your history, science and math from a real tangible book. Since my daughter is at home with me, it is easier for me to instill a love of writing on paper and reading books over TV or games. I think it would be challenging to do so when your kids are in public or private school because they have already been in school for 8 hours, the last thing I am sure they want to do is listen to mom tell them how beneficial writing and reading can be! But I also am a firm believer in children imitating what they see, so if a parent is reading and writing, I think a child will be more apt to do so, if not now then as they become older.

    I, like you, crease my corners and take notes. My daughter has picked up on the creasing corners bit but puts her notes on cards. She has become an ample reader and loves it. She is always looking for new books to read and when she doesn’t have one right away she writes and illustrates her own.

    All this to say, I am thankful for technology but it is definitely a love/hate relationship. I do think today’s youth needs that example, they need to see adults taking time to read the old fashioned way, from a book with real turning pages.

  3. Frazen says “…..responsibility……to make books compelling.” Doesn’t every author try? So what in the world does that mean? But Renee you have explained what that means when you say “…..I simply can’t give back the book once it has become part of me.” That explains it in one sentence. Yes, the author has succeeded!

  4. Excellent, Renee! I appreciate how you put so eloquently into words a phenomena that I believe needs to be addressed as a society. As you emphasized in this blog, technology is not necessarily benefitting today’s youth. My kids are avid readers (of real books), since computers, ipods, and all the rest of these technological gadgets are not a part of kids’ lives in the (Torah-observant) culture I’m living in. I celebrate your courage in truthfully exploring all of these life, society, educational issues of today. Keep up the truth-seeking. I’m right there with ya, sister!

  5. If an author cannot bring me to his literary world and make me feel like one of his characters within a chapter or two, he has not succeeded and the book goes back to the shelf, library or friend. If it is a nonfiction book, then I must become engrossed in its information. I find, that if the author is really good, he/she can involve me in topics where I have no background and never knew I could be interested. A recent book that met both of these criteria for me is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Virchese. The characters fascinated me and I was surprised to discover I enjoyed learning about medical practices in Africa!

    1. MARLENE: This makes sense. But Franzen says “…to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of someone else.” I am ambivalent as to how I feel about that. Does he expect his reader to have some magnetic spiritual communion by internalizing karma from his printed words? If I read Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, or Robert Frost, I am drawn inside the poet to a great extent. Will soon start Inca Gold by Clive Cussler. I don’t give a hoot about Clive Cussler or care to be bridged to the inside of him not one bit. I want to be caught up in the whirlwind of his characters and the intensity of the action and the interaction! And I will. I love it. He makes pictures and scenes erupt in my mind like a non stop Indiana Jones adventure on film. So why would Franzen think it is his mission or that anyone world care to be drawn into him? The only part of me that gets drawn in to Mr. Cussler for example, is the $$$ I paid for the book. Am I drawn inside of him because I am drawn inside the story? I don’t think so.

      1. Carl, I think you are getting caught up in semantics. Franzen was saying the same thing you are, the same thing Marlene did, the same thing I did. That writers need to write very, very well in order to draw people away from the enticing world of media. And, alas, Sparky has articulated the true generational gap which could have enormous repercussions on the entire future of our democracy. If kids don’t look outside themselves to tradition, to history, to art, to civics … we are probably lost.

  6. As the father of a 13 year old, and an avid reader, I have to agree.
    Having become computer literate late in th game I find the internet a wealth of imformation about all things.
    If I’m watching a Clint Eastwood movie I have been known to stop and look up that one girl that was in all of his early movies only to find she was married to him and her entire acting career was acting in his movies.
    I love the internet for it’s instant answers to questions I didn’t think to ask.
    As a reader, I love the instant acess to the behind the scenes that the internet offers.
    However, My daughter only knows the internet for what it can do for her NOW!

    It’s the way of the world.
    She has never known the love of a good book. Not for lack of trying.
    The true downside here is that she doesn’t understand the internet well enough to get any use out of it,
    Her life is all about Facebook and what have you, but when it comes to answering questions, where the internet realy shines, she doesn’t know how.
    she depends on me for that.
    There are few questions that can’t be answered by a quick Google search, but she does not seem to have the understanding to make that work in her favor. Again, not for lack of trying,
    Honestly, what good is it giving our children a wonderfull gift like the internet, if they haven’t bothered reading the instruction manual.
    It starts with books, with authors that touch your heart, stir your mind, and then you go on the internet to learn more, seems many have tried to skip the second step and they are paying the price ..
    Just my thoughts, Forgive me,

  7. I haven’t read the book, so I doubt I should be saying this; I might not be refuting any of Bauerlein’s points properly. But the thing is, the technology available to this generation is preparing them poorly for life in the previous generation. It makes me just as sad as anyone, but it may not be at all necessary for kids to know how to write cursive or how to look up an answer in an encyclopedia in another 30 years. Knowledge, and the way that we attain it, is evolving; as it’s going now, we may end up with memorized knowledge about fewer things, but if the internet can remember it for us (wholesale), that memorization is unnecessary.

    Is that shortsighted? Yeah. Virtual knowledge is easily lost, and during a power outage, these kids won’t know how to do anything. But saying that the way kids learn today does not prepare them for the world of tomorrow is pretty shortsighted too. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like, and I suspect it’s going to involve technology in a lot of the ways that 12-year-olds are using it now.

    The more worrying point Bauerlein makes, that technology is keeping kids from maturity, from understanding the full breadth of “serious work, civic duty, financial independence, personal and family responsibility”, might be a good one…but it sounds to me a little like get-off-my-lawn-ism. Kids have been vulgar and stupid and immature and disrespectful to their elders since the dawn of time. They’re just doing it on Facebook now.

    1. @Crisi:

      I would argue the ramifications for the United States are pretty grave. We require a steady stream of men and women to replenish our institutions, to become strong, insightful military leaders and wise political leaders, objective journalists, demanding teachers, judges and scholars, critics and artists. We also need every day workers. Right now teachers are trying their darndest to impart knowledge, but students only remember what best suits their interests. They don’t care about being well-rounded. They are staying younger longer and we are starting to pay for their ever-lengthening social lives and play time. (Check out this link:;content)

      The thing is democracy requires people to agree to be an informed part of the institution. If tradition survives only in the classroom, if the tradition of knowledge doesn’t matter, if they aren’t pursuing the life of the mind and discussing complex ideas and opposing worldviews when they are together (like in the 1960s and 1970s when teens talked about politics), these concepts won’t inform their thoughts or behaviors when they are older. They will stop voting. They will stop caring. Many already have.

      I think adults everywhere need to align against youth ignorance and apathy. I’m not afraid of being called an old fart because I believe that students should know about how our government works, should read certain authors to understand how American ideology has morphed over time. As far as technology goes, I am not anti-technology: I have a blog, 3 email addresses, a Facebook account linked to a Twitter account, and an iPhone, I upload my photos to Snapfish, and make home movies on my computer. I use technology — even (gasp!) Wikipedia when I need a quick fact, but I also know how to generate a thesis independently and research it, not just cut and paste information together from various sources. I know how to think critically about the material from which I am reading. I can determine biases. My students cannot always do this.

      When Bill Clinton signed NAFTA 10 years ago, I sighed and said, “This will come back to bite us in the ass.” Because we need jobs here in the US for our unskilled labor force. Not everyone goes to college – not should they be expected to. Higher education isn’t for everyone.

      I will agree, we can’t know what tomorrow will look like and I am certain it will involve technology. It SHOULD involve technology. We just have to make sure kids aren’t spending all their leisure time gaming, listening to solely contemporary music, playing BeJeweled on Facebook, cyber-bullying, texting and sexting, etc. It will be interesting to see where all this technology takes us.

      1. RASJ This is insightful. None of this “realistic idealism” (I just made that up) was applicable to the student population with whom I spent my days in Miami. My last several years in the high school classroom left me very apprehensive about the nation’s future. Or non future. UNLESS it was a college bound group of advanced placement, the students in my classes were just empty shells. At best 20% did the homework(I stopped giving it) and 2/3 of that was copied(all wrong answers). I stopped testing and would sit with and read with them to get the answers. Still a big chunk of non participation. 3-5 years behind in reading level. No focus or attention span characterized far too many. Not more than five or six brought a book to class. The average absentee record for a kid was 25 days. Late to school a third of the days so they miss first and/or second period. If that class in English or math…..They just sat with no engagement in any brain stimulus and wait to be withdrawn at 16. Or if they stick it out they get a “certificate of attendance” (not a diploma). The parents are so proud of that accomplishment(???). They are unskilled, unemployable, have no future and are not in the least concerned. This is an entire generation of welfare dependent and baby producing nothingness. It also shows in the current young adult work force. Every direction in which I move carrying out daily life functions there is nothing but incompetence. You identified everything that needs to be given to educate youth. It is not entering the minds of far too many youth. I sure hope it’s better in your part of the country.

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