The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader
How good reading brings us closer to others, and how efforts to personalise all the settings on our lives make us lonelier – and more narcissistic – than ever.
In the mid-nineties, Jonathan Franzen gave away his television. This was a time when to be without a TV was to be without video in the home – no Netflix on your laptop, no YouTube on your phone, no live TV on an iPad. His TV set – a massive box from “an era when TV sets were trying, however feebly, to pass as furniture” – had already been relegated to the floor of his closet, from where it could only be watched while squatting on the floor and holding the antenna. This was still not enough to prevent him from squandering time watching TV instead of reading books. Today, this seems quaint; if he was distracted then by that huge box, wait until it is small enough to slip into a pocket and carry it everywhere, at all times.
This story of giving up the television is how Franzen begins an essay called “The Reader in Exile”, in which he worries about the encroachment of digital technology on the private space of reading. The experience of reading his essay today – from my vantage point in a definitively digital culture, almost three decades beyond Franzen’s place at the tipping point from an analogue world to the world wide web we are all caught in – was perversely satisfying and yet numbingly melancholic. It felt a lot like betting against myself and winning.
I admit to feeling, while reading the essay, an unearned smugness at having the hindsight to see how quickly and how poorly certain comments would age, sentences such as: “... it’s difficult to tell if the Internet is legitimately big news.” There was an urge to scoff at a comparison between predictions about the impact of the internet and predictions in the fifties about atomic energy reducing the cost of monthly bills to “pennies” – as if I, in 1995, would have known any better. There was also a sense of inevitable defeat, of historical determinism, in recognising Franzen’s concerns about a decreasingly literary culture and knowing that the situation has not improved over the subsequent quarter century.
But the dominant feeling I had in reading Franzen’s lamentation was one of sudden and surprising self-consciousness – of recognising my own face in the mirror that I thought, only a second ago, was a picture of someone else. I recognise myself when Franzen writes of the “self-definition” he gets “from regular immersion in literature”. Readers understand themselves through the obsession of Quixote and addiction of de Quincey, the self-determination of Elizabeth Bennet, or the resistance to arbitrary authority as shown by Captain Yossarian, just as cinephiles find and define themselves through Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, or the vagaries of memory in Eternal Sunshine, or how we interact with time in Arrival. No doubt this can be extrapolated to other arts and their aficionados.
One of the ways in which we refine the self we are saddled with is by comparing and contrasting it against others we encounter in the world. We define ourselves in the negative, against those selves we are not and do not wish to be, and in the positive in comparison to others we recognise ourselves in or aspire to be like. The first time I read Christopher Hitchens on the courage of the contrarian, I recognised a self I hoped to one day fully embody. When I watched Midnight in Paris, I recognised, in the gullibly nostalgia-infatuated main character, the person I often was. When I consider collaborators with evil or mere perpetuators of the banal, I see selves I hope never to become. It takes a community to make an individual.
Although reading is a solitary act, it offers creative access to the inner lives of others, to other ways of seeing and being in the world. Reading challenges our own personal dogmas and presents ideas that can refine our own thinking or, in many cases, completely overturn our beliefs on a given topic. Good books – and good reading – are not about reinforcing one’s predetermined and preferred sense of self, which is ego, but about the careful, considered creation of new selves. Although we read alone, we are invited into an intimacy (of a kind that has never been truly replicated in the online world) with the text and with the author. Through this relationship with another, we grow as individuals.
This is why I felt a kind of revulsion when I read, in Franzen’s essay, about an essay from the early nineties by the writer Robert Coover. In it, Coover eagerly anticipated the end of the traditional novel’s “elitism” at the murderous hands of hypertext. He hoped that the “networks of alternate routes” in the “nonsequential space made possible by the computer” would champion over “the predetermined one-way route” of traditional writing. The aim was to kick the feet out from under certain hierarchies with the anarchic glee of the postmodernist. This, Coover believed, would liberate the reader from “domination by the author”.*
It’s not a tyranny that the author imposes by expressing a view of things or describing a portion of the world previously unknown to the reader – it is a form of freedom. The author opens the world to the reader, says, “Look, there is much more than what you have seen or are capable of seeing in your finite condition.” The alternative, which is to cater to the reader’s whims and offer only reinforcement of his current view of the world, does not open doors through which the reader can travel and discover new spaces, it merely lends fresh wallpaper to the room he has always inhabited.
Thankfully, hypertext has not been the killing blow to the perennially dying novel. But there are other challenges to reading, and some of them were foreseeable to Franzen even in his essay from the nineties. He writes that a future “digital human being” will be increasingly narcissistic as a result of the invitation by new technologies to curate their own digital world. He quotes the founder of the Media Lab at M.I.T. as writing that one day soon, “newspapers will be printed in an edition of one ... Call it The Daily Me.”
When I read this, I thought of the Guardian newspaper app on my phone, and the way I unthinkingly use its feature of adding to the home-screen only the categories of media I am interested in. Every day I consult the app and every day I learn about only what I think I should know, from a source that narrows these topics further still with the particular left-wing lens they process news through.
It’s not only the Guardian that allows us to create our own filter bubbles in which to breathe the recycled air of familiar ideas and demographic-based clichés. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, all social media really, the people we connect with through dating apps and meet-up sites, and the cookies that tailor ads to appeal specifically to you, singular you, centre-of-the-cosmos-you: All of these reinforce the notion that there is no objective world, only infinite, subjective worlds each created and populated by a single individual.
I can think of nothing lonelier than living in a world of my own creation with only myself for company, occasionally glimpsing other lives in other worlds, only insofar as they reflect and reinforce my solipsistic chamber. This is why the self-recognition that comes of finding out who you are through reading is so different to the self-affirmation that modern consumer life tells us to enjoy: what we get from reading widely, from outside our own scopes of experience, is an understanding of ourselves. This is a prerequisite for growth, which never comes from curating sources that keep telling me I should stay exactly as I am.
The self-recognition I find in reading Franzen’s essay ought to warn me against repeating the inevitably doomed project of trying to avert social change that has probably already happened and is simply waiting to be fully acknowledged. Yet I can’t help adopting the role of Cassandra even while knowing what that role is. Perhaps the protest, albeit without hope of success, is a form of anaesthetic against the pain of change.
Or maybe it’s not so much about putting the genie back in the bottle as it is about being wiser in what we wish for once he’s out. We have the technologies we have and are almost certain never to let them go, but we can still determine what we use them for. I have worried in writing about the loss of non-digital reading, and I’ve done so in a digital medium, one that has allowed me to reach numbers of people and in a variety of places I would not have been able to reach without my website. Maybe I’ve even convinced some small number of them to put aside the digital world a little more often and to engage with the analogue world – with physical books and tangible reality and people in face-to-face encounters – a little more deeply.
The philosopher G. A. Cohen once described himself as a “small-c” conservative because of his interest in “slowing down the rate of change and ... conserving what is valuable”. Many of us who care to preserve the deep value of reading, of literary culture, and of a shared, analogue world don’t wish to prevent change (nor do we believe this even possible) but wish only to carry this value into the world ahead. We think it is worth periodically reminding ourselves to slow down, lift our eyes from the screen, and step out into the world that we share with so many others and that is always waiting for us.
* This belief that limitations are antithetical to freedom comes out of the naive, unworldly belief that total unrestriction is true freedom. Absolute freedom, especially as manifested in the modern capitalist ideal of endless choice (what colour of phone to buy, which brand of sock to wear, whether to own music digitally, or on CD, or on vinyl, or don’t own it at all but stream it, but which site will you stream it from...?), is a tyranny that enslaves us in a never-ending and exhausting chain of meaningless decisions. I’ve heard it said that irony is the song of the bird who has come to love its cage; the same could be said of consumer choices.
• “The Reader in Exile”, in How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen (first published 1995; collection published 2002)
• Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte (1995)
• “The End of Books”, Robert Coover, in The New York Times (1992)
• G. A. Cohen quoted in “Slippery Things”, Simone Gubler, in TLS (2022)