I was struck by the phrase “herculean amount of self-control” in reference to what it takes to live and work the way we used to before the internet. It’s over at Alan Jacobs’ blog, Text Patterns, which considers “technologies of reading, writing, research, and knowledge.” The specific context of the phrase (which is found in the comments) is a personal reflection from Jacobs’ friend who’s taking a sabbatical from blogging. This allowed him to sink into reading for an extended time, to give himself over to it, all of which, he says, had become rare in his life.
Conversations like this are ubiquitous in our culture. We’re aware that things have changed, and how drastically — in the way we read, in the way we pay (or don’t pay) attention. It worries us, of course.
It seems to me that the notion that self-control in these matters is both necessary and good (Hercules being a hero, after all) is largely motivated by memory. Isn’t it? It’s those of us who have lived long enough to remember what it’s like to be absorbed in a book at length, to work with singular focus, to not be restless over essentially minuscule concerns such as whether there’s a new message or tweet or status line to read, who try to fight back.
The change is real, and so are the memories. The effort to return is therefore herculean. Confession: I know the siren call of “is there something new?” The aimless wandering and clicking to seek it. It’s like a nervous tic. I also remember yesteryear’s rituals of once-a-day mail delivery, the once-a-day newspaper, the expectation that if I need to be interrupted, the telephone will ring. I know the difference between those habits, those interruptions, and this compulsive distraction. Or, at least, the temptation to distraction. It annoys me that barely ten or fifteen minutes into reading a wonderful book I’m getting itchy to check something on the computer, to move my mouse over the desk to bring the screen to life, to click on something. It annoys me that resisting this (because there’s nothing I need, really need, there at the moment) is such hard work.
But maybe, as I said, it’s the memory that’s the problem and when old ways are forgotten, the discomfort will disappear as well. Perhaps subsequent generations, those who grow up with these new habits, will adapt just fine. They’ll be what they’re accustomed to being. They won’t need to expend effort in something they didn’t know, and thus don’t remember, any more than we expend effort in reading scrolls instead of books or staging family dramas in our houses instead of turning on the television.