May 10, 2012

Émile Zola

Émile Zola

I used to console myself with the thought that at least I’d been reading masses of news and informed opinion, making myself wiser and better equipped to add my own few cents to the pile. This is getting harder and harder to believe. There’s something fleeting, something trivializing about the Internet. I think what I have actually done is wasted five or six perfectly good hours when I could have been working up a book proposal, fixing a side door in the garage, doing bench presses, or…or…reading a novel.

Dr. Johnson used to speak of idle rich people at fashionable spas trying to “rid themselves of the day.” Have I come to that at last? Scanning back, I do seem to have rid myself of a lot of days with not much to show for them.

I should work out a Plan of Life. No Internet after 11 AM! Two good solid books a week, one of them fiction! Regular daily exercise with free weights! Two hours set aside for household chores!

Yet no sooner do I form the idea than despair and fatalism set in. If I were the kind of person to stick to a discipline like that, I would have done so long since. And hey, at least I’m not that guy on the train, drawn irresistibly, twitching, to his microscopic toy. I don’t watch TV, either, surely saving myself major brain rot right there. And I’m one of the dwindling number of American males who occasionally reads fiction (an almost exclusively female-readership zone nowadays, according to publishers’ lore).

It’s not as if we all sat around thinking Deep Thoughts before the Internet age. We read more, but not that much more. Here, reproduced from Chapter 4 of that tremendous bestseller We Are Doomed, are the decade-by-decade number of TIME magazine covers featuring novelists from the 1920s to 2000s: 12, 10, 5, 7, 6, 5, 3, 3, 0. (Jonathan Franzen broke the duck in 2010; but I don’t think it heralds a trend.)

What did we do? Watched TV. Went to bars and ball games. Played cards. Bickered with our spouses and kids. Got quietly sozzled in the Barcalounger.

Human beings weren’t made to work, or think much, or read much. Of our Paleolithic ancestors, Cochran and Harpending remark in The 10,000 Year Explosion that: “If they had full stomachs and their tools and weapons were in good shape…they hung out: They talked, gossiped, and sang.”

If they’d had smartphones, they’d have been twiddling.



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