because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

A Bridge From Cyber Chaos to the World of Words

Posted on
The Facebook Man. Facebook is celebrating its ...
Image via Wikipedia

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.