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.)