I have been without the Net for two weeks. Rest assured, this is a temporary condition; I haven’t converted to Luddism. Though I am grateful for the unprecedented amount of work I’ve been able accomplish without it.
I’m not the only desk jockey who thinks so. Recently a writer (on the Internet, naturally) made the point that the most productive people (Woody Allen, for example) do not even own a computer. At first, I scoffed. Now I’m a believer. Up to a point.
Like most everything invented after 1793 — the year Eli Whitney’s cotton gin breathed new life into “the peculiar institution” — the Internet has been a mixed blessing. Information I sorely need to do my work is but a click away. Those born after the dawn of the World Wide Web may find it hard to imagine a time when it could take weeks to find an answer to a question like: how many people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge? Back then, I’d have to put on pants and trudge twenty miles through eight feet of snow to a library with a well-stocked reference section, find the stacks of Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, implore surly reference librarians to request the materials from even more distant libraries, and wait weeks for them to come in, before I finally got a letter informing me that I could pick up my materials, after I pay the five dollar fee.
Being Netless forces those of us with literary pretensions to dust off the cobwebs and change out of our soiled pajamas and actually leave the house, which is always a good thing. Personally, I have to pack my laptop and drive five miles to my cousin’s coffee shop where there is free WiFi. I refuse to pack the battery cable though. I don’t want to be mistaken for one of those digital nomads my cousin is always complaining about, the freeloaders who use his tables and outlets as their rent-free office space, who order one medium coffee and spend eight hours sucking up his electricity. I have an old Sony Vaio with a lousy battery, so I can only get about an hour of surfing before the battery dies. That’s okay; it means I have to stop playing on the Web and go home and put on my pajamas and get some real work done.
I SHOULD NOTE that the previous 400 words would — in my connected days — take up to three days to write. Not because they are particularly insightful or original, rather by the time I got to the fourth sentence I would have stopped to check my email eight times, paused to Google: “What do you call freeloaders who make coffee shops their offices?” and “How long does a Sony laptop battery last?” or I would have remembered that I haven’t looked at The Onion‘s website for a few days and I could use a laugh. Before you know it three days would have passed and I’d still be 400 words shy. Without the Internet, I can pretty much knock off the first draft of an 800-word column in a few minutes.
Better yet, I’ve actually started reading books again. I have shelves of nonfiction masterpieces that I have ignored for too long because I’ve been too busy seeing what James Poulos is Tweeting about, or what my girlfriend is Facebooking about me. I’ve spent ages collecting these books. I always imagined when I finished C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, and Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, and Jan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle I would be a much better writer and debater because I would have these great stores of knowledge to pull from, and I could better see how we fit into the long arc of history. Instead, the books remain unopened, buried under years of dusty neglect , because I am too busy clicking to see if there are any new Shinyribs videos on YouTube.
And yet, without the Internet I would never have become the writer I am today. Before the Net, my submissions were few and far between. Woody Allen may be extraordinarily prolific scribbling on yellow legal pads, but I am far too lazy for that. Tapping out manuscripts and sending them off in the mail (SASE included) and waiting months for the inevitable rejection slip would have quickly worn thin. Whatever mark I’ve made as a writer I owe to the Web.
Hopefully, my connection will be re-established by the end of the week. In the meantime, I’m going to crack open a book. And not an eBook on one of those iPads either, but an old-fashioned paperback that has no email or Facebook apps. Maybe I’ll actually read the damn thing.