Saturday, July 16, 2011

Caught in the Web

I have a problem with the Internet: there's just too much there. To be honest, the problem is my lack of focus. I don't do well with an endless array of choices. I can sit down with the newspaper, read what interests me and ignore what doesn't. Later in the day, I might go back and read something I skipped earlier, or I might throw the paper away.

When I was a teenager, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated and Reader's Digest. On the day a magazine appeared in our mailbox, I took it into the living room and read whatever seemed interesting. Sometimes that was nothing more than the cartoons and fillers, and sometimes it was an article or two. When I was done, I threw the magazine on the end table.

In those days the standard household allotment of televisions was one, so there were evenings when the TV was in the hands of a relative who did not share my refined tastes and preferred to watch something other than The Flintstones or The Beverly Hillbillies. And there were rainy weekends when I was forced to stay inside. On those occasions, I often wandered back into the living room and grabbed a magazine off the end table. Having read the articles on topics that interested me, I had little choice but to peruse the boring articles, which almost always turned out to be less boring than I imagined and often more interesting than the interesting stuff I had already read.

The trouble with the Internet is there is never a reason to go back and discover what you missed. Pick a topic and you can find enough material to keep you reading for eternity. That's not the only problem. Besides sending you to a tiny island in a sea of minutiae, the Internet also provides an instantaneous means of escape. With mouse in hand, you can check the weather, see who is winning the ballgame, chat with a friend, check your e-mail, investigate another topic that suddenly seems more interesting or see which politician or celebrity proved to be a bigger idiot than the politician or celebrity who set the modern record for idiocy a day or two earlier.

Bookstores and libraries are full of distractions, too: so many books, so little time. But eventually I find the book or books I want and go home to read. A book of paper and ink has no links. My mind might wander now and then, but almost anything I want to do is going to require getting up. That doesn't keep all the distractions at bay, but does keep me from indulging every whim.

I've never been good at maintaining my concentration. I admit that. But Newt Gingrich's problems with marital faithfulness haven't stopped him from pointing his holier-than-thou accusatory finger at other adulterers. So if I want to blame the Internet for the decline of Western civilization, I will. And I do.

How is it then that I'm suddenly unable to imagine life without it? I recently read High Tide in Tucson, a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver. In one piece she discusses letters she'd received from readers. In one, a woman from South Padre Island, Texas, wrote that the last bookstore in the area had closed, and she was having trouble getting copies of Ms. Kingsolver's books. Could she help?

"Go to," I screamed.

Then I re-read the passage and noted that the letter was written in the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web as we know it didn't exist.

Maybe the Internet wasn't such a bad idea after all. Horrors.

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