Empty Hours: A Proposition

Responding to an audience question about ebooks and the internet at a recent Brooklyn Public Library event, Jonathan Franzen expressed his worry that the solitude needed to write literary fiction was increasingly impeded by online distractions like the email ping of the Blackberry. Similarly, Wells Tower recently said, “My main gripe with the web is that it’s toxic to the kind of concentration fiction writing requires. It’s difficult to write good sentences and simultaneously buy shoes.”

At the risk of going on a tangent about Nick Carr’s The Shallows, I’d rather focus on Steven Johnson’s NYT article on social reading. He opens with a famous David Foster Wallace quote (“The point of books is to combat loneliness.”), then talks about reader-to-reader quotes and annotations in ebooks. I think this is a specious lede, in that Wallace, like Franzen, is chiefly concerned with the writer and reader reaching one another.

Franzen has noted before, in How to Be Alone, that he’s had to manufacture a kind of sensory deprivation environment to write. Might there be merit in a reader doing the same?

I’m proposing what I call Empty Hours: a few evenings a week for curated solitude. The idea is to turn off the cell phone, close the laptop, avoid the TV. Spend a couple hours reading on the couch. Tempted to play iTunes in the background? Fight it! Empty Hours are about the novelty of doing one thing, and only one thing for an extended period of time.

This isn’t in any way a rejection of technology or online communication, merely a step back to reassess. You could think of it as a secular sabbath, a different approach to media consumption.

I’m going to try it out for a few weeks. I would report back on the results, but I fear that might undermine the whole idea. (Only half-kidding.)

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Filed under reading, writing

3 responses to “Empty Hours: A Proposition

  1. chapmanchapman

    Thanks for the comments guys. Glad to know I’m not the only one doing this.

  2. Pablo Defendini

    I do this on the weekends (you can tell by looking at my twitter stream). I call it my Silent Sunday/Saturday. I would argue that this type of thing is also conducive to getting any type of work done, not just writing.

  3. Cody

    “This isn’t in any way a rejection of technology or online communication, merely a step back to reassess. You could think of it as a secular sabbath, a different approach to media consumption.”

    This is the key, I think. Since taking on a desk/computer job over a year ago, I’ve loved being able to spend the day at once working and listening to music/scouring the web, etc. It’s certainly intellectually and artistically stimulating…but only up to a point. And once I cross this threshold, it just turns into my equivalent (since I don’t own one) of T.V.

    So, I’ve been “going off the grid,” for lack of a better term, every Sunday. Basically, I just don’t open up my computer at all unless I’m using it to record my music. Otherwise, no email, no social networking, no iPhone (unless I actually call someone–weird), etc. What I’ve noticed is that I’m not only more productive and happy on the weekends, my weekdays (whence I’m back on the computer, working) are more satisfying and productive, too. This has worked so well, that, actually, my “tech-fasting” has pretty much spilled over into Saturday, as well.

    I realize the amount of time I spend “turned-off” is more than some need, but it really has worked well for me. And I have to also admit that those friends of mine who don’t tear themselves away, at least somewhat from time to time, are the ones that I have the hardest time sustaining conversations with or, in some cases, even enjoying hanging out with.

    I dunno, I guess what I’m getting at is that technology is pretty awesome, but we’re still animals that need to get back to our roots from time to time.

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