I love the Internet. I think it’s probably worth all the sacrifices humanity will make to have it, which are many. But one of those sacrifices is that the Internet feels like a straw sucking time from my life. I slip into the disembodied flow of information and images and it’s like hitting pause on the felt sense of time passing. I forget to sleep, I forget to eat, I forget that I need to be touched, and my body carries on moving through time without me.
I made a New Year’s resolution to spend more time with physical books. I had a hunch this return to reading on paper would solve all my problems. Of course, it can’t. But having finished the first two, M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I’m starting to have a sense that it might help address the environment from which my most of my problems emerge: the lack of time.
I worry constantly about death — my own death, my loved ones’ deaths, the deaths of strangers, of abstracted populations, historical figures, hypothetical future generations, and even the occasional pop star. The prospect of literally dying isn’t too scary; even the most painful, startling, and horrific methods are still over pretty soon. And I’m not the kind of person who wants my head chopped off and frozen so that my eventually digitized consciousness can be uploaded into a hivemind that will colonize deep space. I like the idea of someday being gone. Historicity is a good aesthetic. But it matters when. Death means no more time.
I don’t want all the time, but I want more time than I think I have, and certainly more time than it feels like I have when I look up from six hours of accidentally surfing Facebook. I want enough time to do the things that matter. I want to feel like I lived a whole life. Like I saw things change so much that I’m ready to let them continue on without me now. I want experiential richness and maybe, eventually, to be good at something.
Books are time bubbles. Physical books especially, maybe because they have a shape; contents that are clearly bounded, separate from the ubiquitous, inchoate flow of information through my cyborg daily world; edges so sharp they literally cut you if you touch them wrong. Opening a book is like taking the crinkly, bright wrapper off of a piece of candy. You pop it in your mouth and suddenly you get six weeks, or three whole years, or the rise and fall of a dynasty, or two peoples’ entire lives intertwined with each other. You get more time.
When I spend two hours on the Internet, I come back blinking and feel like time has carried on without me. Maybe I acquired some shiny infobits or tied more deeply into a meaningful human relationship, but my life feels shorter than it did when I went in. When I spend two hours on the couch with a novel, I put it down to sense that I’m still here, right where time left me; that I took an incredible trip into a different worldstream and maybe lived whole other lives, but now I’m home and only a few moments have passed and I have all the time in the world to continue living my own story.
Reading more physical books won’t solve all my problems, but it might make me feel like I have enough time to solve them myself. So, what should I read next?