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The novel in the age of digital diversion


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At Public Books, Anna E. Clark reviews a trio of recent novels that take a refreshing approach to digital interaction, suggesting that it has not so much ruined our ability to communicate, as it has amplified and extended our pre-existing tendency to communicate in stilted, fragmentary, self-flattering ways. Clark contrasts this nuanced view of social media to that of Michael Harris, whose book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection argues that “you cannot become properly independent, you cannot become an adult, without disengaging from networks.” Here’s a snippet of Clark’s review:

Harris’s insights into the Internet’s relentless intrusions are shrewd, but when he turns to the novel, the acuity with which he describes our new digital norms falters. Though he doesn’t say it outright, his celebration of War and Peace is due in large part to its status as a challenging work of capital-L Literature. Reading it is hard, and becoming absorbed in it is a badge of honor. It’s difficult to imagine Harris having the same reaction to a deep dive into Harlequin romances, which many find far more absorbing than Tolstoy. Harris’s chief exemplars of intelligent pre-tech reading are men like Thoreau and Milton, celebrated for their long, unbroken hours of productive contemplation. But surely the solitary labor of august men of letters has never been typical. Earning a living and caring for family intrude on absence as much as Google-equipped phones, and reading has long been as much a means of escape as an instrument of intellectual cultivation. Harris wants us to be more mindful digital users, yet by making the reading of classic literature an emblem of what we’ve lost, he renders the line between pre- and post-Internet society more clear-cut than it is. If anything, the vast, teeming, multilingual worlds created by novels are precursors of our digital-age diversions.

When novels and novel readers become objects of nostalgia, we risk overlooking how the novel form has adapted to our digital selves, and we to it. If Harris wants Tolstoy to save us from the Internet, recent novels suggest that it’s already too late. Three new works—Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, and Louisa Hall’s Speak—use the form to ask the same questions that propel Harris: has tech changed us? And, if so, how? Unlike Harris, though, these authors are less interested in how reading novels is different from being online than in how novels themselves capture our imperfect ways of communicating with one another—digitally and otherwise. Characters turn to technology for recognition and companionable solace, only to find that their digital selves make their real ones more feel even more alienated.

Image via Public Books.