Yes, I’m talking to you. All right, no, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to myself.
I’m not quite sure what happened during the pandemic. On the one hand, I was on my computer all the time. I had to teach classes on Zoom, and between classes, grading, and conferences, there were weeks when I spent more than forty hours in front of my laptop. I developed back problems, a stiff neck. And then, I spent more hours on my cell phone. Every morning, I would check to see how the world was doing. Every night, I would check again. And throughout the day. Because it seemed as though the world was burning, and I needed to know what was going on. I would check with fear that things were getting worse, hope that they might be at least a little better.
Even writing this takes me back to that time, which seems so far away but was less than a year ago — it feels as though there is a gulf between the world we are living in, with vaccines, and the world we lived in without. I got a vaccine as soon as I could — the one-shot Johnson & Johnson, which is what they had that day in the hospital, and I will get a second shot as soon as they let me, they being the powers that govern our lives, like the gods of old, speaking from on high.
I was on my cell phone all the time. I got used to checking it when I had a few spare minutes, scrolling through the news or social media, hoping for something. For good news, but some days it was also the only way I interacted with human beings. There were entire days on which the only people I saw were faces in the little boxes of Zoom. That was better than nothing, but in a way it was also worse, because now that we are in a better time, a more hopeful, normal time, I can feel its afteraffects. It’s as though I’ve developed an allergy.
During that time, I started to hate being on my computer. This is a serious problem, if you consider that I’m a writer. I’m being a writer right now, writing this. But after spending hours on Zoom, Slack, Digication, Doodle, Blackboard, and all the other online technology I used to teach my class, after hours of grading papers on my computer, I could not look at it anymore. I could not work on my own writing.
I reacted differently to my phone. I didn’t like being on it, exactly. But I was on it nevertheless, compulsively. Every time I looked at it, I experienced a tiny bit of panic, an indrawn breath and tightening of the chest. Had the world burned down since I last looked? I would check the New York Times, Washington Post, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. No, the world had not burned down. But what about half an hour after — had it burned down yet? And an hour after . . . My response is not quite as bad, as drastic, now, but I still feel that compulsion to check.
In other words, my relationship to both my laptop and my cell phone has become dysfunctional. I suspect I’m not the only one. We have all been through the trauma of the past year. We are all responding to it in some way.
I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m trying to use my laptop more — I am once again, at long last, writing. I’m also trying to use my phone less, at least in the way I described above. I’m trying to stay off the news so much, and it seems to me that social media has grown significantly worse in the past year. Instagram, which I thought of as more innocuous than the others, a source of pretty pictures, is now half advertising. Twitter is the worst, a conglomeration of cute memes, playground bullying, and self-righteout outrage. I try to limit what I see, how I participate. I keep it partly from a sense that somehow, as a writer, I should have an account, and partly because it has become the only reliable way to contact customer service. Tweet at a company, and it will answer.
But I need to get off my phone, at least most of the time. Or I need to change the way I use it, so I’m not scrolling through, looking for something that my cell phone can’t provide. The problem is, I’ve never been addicted to anything in my life, except one thing — reading. I will read anything, anywhere. When I was a child, I would read compulsively, walking home from school. I learned how to walk and read at the same time. I would read the back of a cereal box if it was placed in front of me. I read deeply, immersively, compulsively.
But during the worst of the pandemic, I stopped reading books. I could not concentrate on anything — I did not have the mental focus or energy for long blocks of text. Instead, I read the news, Facebook posts, tweets. I learned to read and scroll, quickly, superficially, more skimming than reading. It is only recently that I started reading books again. And I found that reading books is, at least for me, fundamentally different from reading anything online.
Reading books, sitting on a comfortable sofa or bed, propped up against pillows, turning the pages with my hands, is a source of deep satisfaction. If I read at night before going to bed, I sleep better. It’s as though reading a book helps regulate my brain. When I read on my phone before going to sleep, I stay up later and have difficulty falling asleep. My sleep is more shallow, filled with anxious dreams. I don’t know if any scientists have studied this, but I think reading a book and reading my phone do different things to my brain. It processes these experiences differently.
Paradoxically, the sense of connection I don’t get scrolling through social media, I get reading a book. We think of reading books as a solitary activity, yet it connects us to something — I’m not sure what. Perhaps to ourselves? Whereas social media often leaves us feeling lonely. I don’t mean to criticize social media, because it certainly has its uses. I see wonderful art posted there, I learn about books and talks and conferences. Those are all good uses for it. Social media is good to the extent that it helps us actually connect — to artists we did not know about, to each other in the real, offline world. But it does not substitute for the real world. And it does not substitute for real, deep, extended reading.
It’s the difference between eating an apple and apple-flavored fruit jerky. An apple will leave you satisfied — you’ve had the real thing. Eat the fruit jerky, and you’ll be hungry again a half hour later.
They say the best way to change a bad habit is to substitute a good habit. So I’m going back to an older habit of mine — carrying a book everywhere. Yes, I’ll still have my phone, but hopefully I will check it less. I will read more, try to use my laptop more than the clever little device I carry in my purse that tries to be everything to me, bank and music and friends, but ends up being a petty tyrant and thief of time.
And if you’re reading this on your cell phone, stop for a moment. Listen to the birds or traffic. Take a deep breath.
(The image is Young Woman Reading a Book by Aleksandr Deineka.)