Today's class discussion on how the experience of reading on a computer is strikingly different (and perhaps more difficult) than reading from a book reminded me of something I read from the writer Jonathan Franzen. If you aren't familiar with him, Franzen is a fiction writer most famous for Freedom, published last summer and the subject of incessant critical hyperventilation. (It's a very good book, but maybe not quite "a masterpiece of American fiction.") Franzen is also a notoriously deliberate and methodical writer, taking nine years to write Freedom. Part of his writing method includes absolutely mutilating his computer. "What you have to do," he says, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it." And this is after, of course, removing the wireless card.
Why? Because Franzen steadfastly believes that good writing is impossible to achieve with the sirens of the Internet beckoning. He has pronounced it as his eighth rule of writing: "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."
This is probably a very familiar feeling for many of us. Relatively short essay assignments take hours because of frequent and often instinctive forays into the Internet wormhole. Websites distract and detract from getting a rhythm and flow in your writing. Sure, it may be useful to seek out information relevant to your topic, but you can just as easily stumble on blog posts like this one dotted with hyperlinks tempting you to click your way onto a tangential journey.
More than anything else, the reason that deep reading and prosaic writing on a computer seem so much more difficult is because the computer is littered with temptation. Even if you have nothing open but an article, you always know that iTunes, Facebook, and your email are but a click away. It will always be in the back of your mind, looming. Picking up a book removes this temptation. So, too, does jamming your computer full of superglue.