A novel approach to life online

For the first time in a year, I’ve lost myself in a book. It’s Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, The Lacuna– a marvellous historical novel that centers on a Mexican-American who becomes cook and secretary to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. I’ve disappeared into the world of mid-century revolutionaries and artists, surfacing into my own life with that lingering distraction that comes from having half of my head, and even more of my heart, ensnared in a fictional world.

And yet I never feel more myself, more in balance, and just plain happier than when I’m reading a novel. That’s why I was so distressed by the recent realization that it had been months since I lost myself in a book. How many months? I wondered aloud, during a conversation with a dear friend. I counted backwards to….the arrival of my Kindle last May.

“I guess I haven’t been reading since I got my Kindle,” I heard myself say. “I guess that at the end of the work day, it just feels like one more damn screen.”

“That’s because it is one more damn screen,” she pointed out.

At the time of our conversation I was mid-way through A Short History of Women. It was the third novel in a row that I had expected to love, but as I paged through my Kindle, found just OK. That very day, I headed to a real bookstore — you know, the tree-killing kind — and bought the very same novel in hardback. It had taken me weeks to plow through the first few pages, but once I switched to paper I was pulled right in.

My next experiment ran in the opposite direction: at an airport bookstore, I picked up a copy of Anathem, which was loaded on my Kindle but still unread. After a couple of days of reading, I was halfway through the paperback, so I switched over to the Kindle. My reading ground to a halt. I picked up the paperback again, and forced myself to try switching back to the Kindle a few more times….but no luck. The sad truth was that despite being a major gadget freak, the Kindle just didn’t work for me.

Since abandoning my Kindle I’ve read a couple of other books, but nothing that has really won my heart. Finally, with The Lacuna, I’ve rediscovered myself as a reader: the kind of reader who lets dishes and e-mails pile up while I read just a few more pages. And yet a reader geeky enough that the most resonant analogy for my readerly state comes from a Star Trek episode: the episode in which Captain Picard gets zapped by some kind of alien satellite, and lives an entire parallel lifetime over the course of an hour-long brain-probe. That’s what a good book is like: a chance to live a complete parallel life, unconstrained by the place or moment in which your physical self happens to reside.

And that’s what a fulfilling online life can be, too: the chance to live a life and a half, to squish a second parallel existence into the seams of our day-to-day physical lives, projecting another version of yourself into a world that you experience only through the force of your imagination. Like the world you slip into through a novel, that virtual life can feel emotionally real and intellectually compelling; you can feel invested in its characters and relationships, and find it painful to tear away.

That’s online life at its best. But too often it feels novel-like only in the difficulty of separation: like a good book, I can’t put my computer down. Unlike a good book, however, I don’t necessarily feel quenched by checking in on Facebook, or Twitter, or foursquare, or whatever happens to be my compulsion of the week. It’s only as fulfilling as a beach read: diverting without being nourishing, eventful without being insightful.

As I try to tune into the quality of my online interactions, and to differentiate between those that are replenishing versus those that are merely amusing (or far worse, compulsive) the standard of a good novel is a helpful gut check. Novels have been my soul food since I was eight years old, so the feeling I get from a good read is as familiar and certain as a pang of hunger or the adrenalin rush from a run.

My best online experiences have that same soulful quality: the sense that the parallel world I’ve entered through an online exchange has somehow enlarged the space of my life, or the recognition that something I’ve read or seen online has changed how I look at the world, perhaps narrowly, but permanently. Recognizing that online content and online interactions can be as profound as a novel is what keeps me coming back; remembering that a novel remains my single best emotional yardstick for life online is what reminds me that sometimes, I just need to unplug.

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