I spent much of last week working on the prologue to Black Beauty: A Life of Duke Ellington, and I tweeted at regular intervals about my progress. As a result, I suddenly found myself in direct communication with a singer-songwriter whom I’ve long admired from afar. One day she noticed my progress reports about Black Beauty, and all at once we were exchanging messages about my book and her latest album, to which I’d been listening on the road in Florida. “I like it when people say they play it in a car,” she wrote. “A car is like a giant headphone.” (I love that image.)
What I find most striking about this occurrence is the way in which it underlines the democratizing power of life in the digital age. Not only do I tweet, but I also receive “public” e-mail here and at my Wall Street Journal mailbox. Though I’m not able to keep up with it as consistently as I’d like, I always read my mail and do my best to answer every message that isn’t merely abusive. On top of that, Google Search makes it possible for me to know who writes about me on the Web and what they’ve written. As a result, I now have a fair number of in-person and Web-based friends whom I first “met” in cyberspace, and I expect I’ll make more in the future.
The problem with all this democracy, of course, is that it helps to keep me busier than I’d like to be. I’m very selective about following people on Twitter or friending them on Facebook–I have to be in order to get any work done–but that still leaves me with a big pile of tweets and status updates to peruse each morning, and when I’m too busy to chew through them all before starting work, I feel as though I’ve lost touch with the world.
Now that Mrs. T and I are making plans to take a two-week-long vacation at the end of May, I’m grappling with the Big Question: can I really bring myself to go for two weeks without checking my e-mail, given the fact that I’ll almost certainly have a couple of thousand e-mails waiting for me upon my return if I don’t? Add to that the countless tweets that I certainly won’t try to read, and you end up with quite an anxiety-making prospect.
The answer, needless to say, is that it’ll be more important, and more valuable, for me to be out of touch for two weeks than to try to stay in touch during that time. Two unimaginably distant centuries ago, Wordworth lamented the very thing that weighs heavily on me as I plan my vacation:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Mind you, I don’t think the Internet is anything like a sordid boon. For the most part, in fact, I see it as almost entirely benign in its effects. In 2005 I wrote an essay about blogging that ended with the following lines:
No doubt there will always be shouting in the blogosphere, but it need not all be past each other. When the history of blogging is written a half-century from now, its chroniclers may yet record that the highest achievement of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, turned out to be its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.
I still feel that way, very much so. But I also need the same amount of silence in my life that I needed five years ago, the restorative, fertilizing silence that makes it possible for me to generate fresh ideas and refine old ones. Instead I’m getting less of it, and I know better than anyone that I’m my own problem, not to mention the only person who can fix it. Whether or not I can bring myself to pull the plug all the way out of the socket for two whole weeks is something else again, but I’m going to do my damnedest, and I suspect that Mrs. T will be right in there pitching as well.
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I finished writing the first draft of the prologue to Black Beauty on Saturday after four days of very intensive work. It’s 8,900 words long, and I think I like it.