MAXWELL: There’s no substitute for real life

11/8/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As Internet connectivity surges ahead, capturing the imagination and governing daily life, I am beginning to feel more and more like a Luddite.

When I was turned on to the world about five years ago, I found myself spending three to four hours a day online. I was temporarily addicted. Doing what? Mostly wasting time and energy reading stuff that did not improve the quality of my life or substantially aid me as a writer.

I have returned permanently to my first love, the tried-and-true world of real paper _ books, newspapers, magazines.

While hooked on the Net, I slowly realized that I was talking less to colleagues at work. I began to notice this change when a colleague stopped asking me questions about literature and writers. I used to love the opportunity to show off the psychobabble I learned in graduate school, to rattle off titles, briefly explicate poems, recite the latest theories of one or another postmodernist nut.

Now, my colleague logs on to the Web and finds material that I would not have learned in 1,000 years or would care to learn. I miss those talks, the stimulation of the give-and-take of a real discussion. On a different level, I regret that my colleagues and I spend more time sending one another interoffice electronic messages than we do talking to one another.

Even those who sit within 20 feet of me send e-messages.

Sure, e-messages can be convenient, but I miss the human voice, the laughter, the irony, the surprise and, of course, the flirtation if the caller is a single, pretty woman.

Even at home, where I have America Online, my friends and I use e-mail rather than talk by telephone. I forbid some people to e-mail me because I want to hear their voices. I will not, for example, reply to e-mail from members of my immediate family. If they want to communicate with me, they had better send snail mail or pick up the telephone.

I have thousands of books in my house, many of them excellent references. Anything I have wanted to find _ or needed to find _ I usually can find in my books. If I cannot find what I need in my home library, I drive to the University of South Florida’s Bayboro library or to the nearest public library.

Like most writers, I have ordered books online. But I still prefer the bookstore, especially those with great used collections. The smell of leather and parchment is soothing.

The simple fact is that I am in love with books and libraries. I like the idea of the Internet, and I use it at work as a last resort. Many of my colleagues and friends rely on the Internet to the point that they hardly ever grab a book or magazine anymore. I am not knocking them, for some of them have turned their computers into virtual libraries and bookstores.

Because I cannot get hard copies of Israel’s two English-language newspapers delivered, I read them online, and sometimes I read online articles in America’s leading newspapers.

A friend in New York theorizes that I have been using a kind of Internet for many years without knowing it. She argues that a book index acts like the Internet. When it was created, the index gave readers the power and freedom to manipulate information.

Before the index, readers had no choice but to start at the beginning of a work and go to the end to find what they wanted. However, with the index, as with the Internet, we can select the bits of information we want at any time.

I had never considered the significance of the lowly index, of how it empowers the reader. Indeed, the Internet has given us power over information. We can sit in the comfort of our homes and literally pull through space what we need.

In our “Favorites” file, we can download the universe and shape it as we see fit.

Even so, I cannot wait to get home each day to be in the company of my books. I seek friends based on their relationships with books. I like to visit homes that are filled with books.

As far as I am concerned, a house is not a home if it does not have books. On the other side, a computer does not make a house a home. Almost every night, I take a book to bed and read myself to sleep. I have never taken the Internet to bed _ for any reason.

What matter of weirdo would take his Toshiba Satellite to bed?

I appreciate the Internet, and I use it when I have to. But the Luddite in me keeps pulling me back down to earth, back to ink and paper and real people.