Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, The Reader, c.1760
The Internet Makes You Stupid. The Internet Makes You Smarter. The Internet Makes You Lazy. The Internet Makes You Fat. The Internet closes bookstores. The Internet is Dangerous. The Internet Makes you Anti-Social. Internet Porn Ruins Young Men. Online Gaming is Addictive.
You can Google the Internet makes you ______ and find pages and pages of articles to back up any claim.
But, did you know that all the things that are said about the Internet were once said about books? Especially novels.
As someone who has studied English Literature, these absolute statements made my ears twitch. I’d heard them before. About the first novels, and the 18th through 19th Century reading craze, especially among women.
Reading novels was considered, not only frivolous, but, like the Internet, dangerous to society. In her introduction to the book Women Who Read Are Dangerous (Stefan Bollmann, Abbeville Press, 2016), Karen Joy Fowler quotes the 18th C philosopher, Johann Adam Bergk, when he said of novel readers, “senseless extravagance, insurmountable reluctance to undertake any effort, boundless love of luxury, suppression of the voice of conscience, becoming tired of life, and an early death.” And from Karl G. Bauer in 1791, “The lack of all physical movement while reading, combined with the forcible alternation of imagination and emotion, would lead to slackness, mucous congestion, flatulence, and constipation of the inner organs, which, as is well known, particularly in the female sex, actually affects the sexual parts.” The painter, Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, in 1760 depicted just such a lady, who, though dressed to go out, has apparently been diverted by a sexy novel, pleasured herself, and now lies recumbent in disarray. I know of at least one novel during this period, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, that was pretty steamy stuff. Pamela was a maidservant pursued by the young master of the house; she rebuked his attentions until, finally, he married her. So, virtue rewarded. The danger of reading novels was not just a feminist issue. In the 16th century, Cervantes' Don Quixote was inspired by romance novels to embark on his improbable quests. Novels made him unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. There was also Paolo and Francesca in Dante's Divine Comedy - a 13th Century love story in real life - whose reading about Lancelot and Guinevere had disastrous consequences.
Every day we hear the same phrases about the Internet, young people and the devices they use to go online – phones, computers, laptops, iPads – all of which seem permanently attached to their hands.
Kids who keep their phones on all night, open to Twitter or Instagram, waking at that buzz, sneaking under the covers, if need be, that intimate, artificial glow on their faces from the lighted screen. Likewise, a child reading with a flashlight, or before that, a candle. Parents are encouraged to get their kids to put their devices down and run around in the fresh air. They may even show a kid reading a book out on the lawn in any of these public-service announcements.
If you’ve ever watched an 18th - 19th Century period piece and wondered why the characters are visiting friends, or running off in a carriage with a lover, but have a book covering their faces – like any kid with an iPhone - it’s because reading was a fad at the time, and a book was considered a hip, intelligent accessory – again, much like an iPhone.
Also, according to Fowler, there was a phenomenon called “silent reading,” which was considered subversive. Apparently, reading had been more like lecturing, or a sermon, with the “reader” reading aloud to a congregation of other humans, meant to be instructional, educational, not necessarily, fun. The idea that people, women especially, had their heads bent silently, entering an unknown world, a world known only to them, not supervised, not devotional, perhaps moving from idle thought to strong feelings, all this was considered dangerous to the health of individuals and society.
Recently, on the BBC TV show, "Downton Abbey," the kitchen maid, Daisy, who holds the bottom-most position in the household discovers she is good at Math, takes a Math course, and talks about leaving service to improve her life, perhaps to become a bookkeeper. Thus, Daisy accomplishes what the ruling class had dreaded for a very long time, since reading and mass education began to get a foothold – she manages to break through the stone ceiling of her class. In one episode, Mrs. Patmore, the cook, mumbles something about Daisy “getting ideas above her station,” which is exactly what Daisy does get, more than an idea, she gets a better job. It wasn’t only World War I that broke up the old class system of England, it was reading.
Today, thanks to the Internet, we are no longer at the mercy of the mainstream media for our news, which is highly censored and delivered to us in cute, tasty, albeit bad-for-you, homogenized, brightly colored junk food packaging. Turn on the network news, flip the channels; you’ll find the same stories presented in the same fashion on every channel. Thanks to the Internet and orgs like Organic Consumers Association, Institute for Responsible Technology, and Food Democracy Now! we know about GMOs in our food. Mainstream media would never have covered GMOs and they still don’t talk about them. Events like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Protests at Standing Rock, even the true story of what was happening at Hurricane Sandy, and the riots at Ferguson, these were covered online by sites such as YouTube, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy on Facebook and Twitter, and other renegade online news sources, such as Democracy Now!, Native News Online, Alternet, Anonymous, and Unicorn Riot. After such off-the-charts, in-your-face coverage, mainstream media could no longer ignore the riots, the killings and the demonstrations. Mainstream news began to cover what they couldn’t ignore, but only with a generic, fast-food wrapper, returning as soon as possible to stories that promoted a more positive, feel-good national agenda, even repeating news stories that served the message the network wanted to convey.
Many say that Internet porn has ruined young men for any real relationships. And, many people also become addicted to online gaming. The Internet has also been blamed for surveillance, stalking and murder. Yes, the Internet has had many ill effects. And, sure, it’s dangerous for our society to be so dependent on the Internet. Businesses, government, banks, stores, etc. would collapse – for a time, at least – without an Internet connection.
But the Internet has also caught many murderers, made crime-fighting tools such as DNA, fingerprints, CCTV and facial recognition much easier to use effectively. Social media has allowed criminals to find victims, but it has also made it possible for police to turn that same social network around to find and arrest those very same perpetrators.
As for porn, Internet porn addiction is very real and has ruined a lot of young men, many of whom can no longer get an erection. Yes, guys, it can get worn out. Only complete withdrawal from Internet porn can fix it. I've never heard of reading causing such a problem, though our ancestors certainly feared it would!
Online gaming is also a serious addiction, as harmful as heroin. One of the stories that sticks in my mind and heart is the tragedy of the couple who forgot to feed their baby because they were playing a game involving their virtual child online. In another story, a clinic in the Netherlands that was treating cocaine addiction soon found that many of their patients were actually using cocaine to try to stay up all night and play in an online gaming community they couldn’t leave for a minute without falling behind. Their cocaine addiction was actually an Internet gaming addiction.
I’ve heard that the Internet spoils you. The research is certainly wonderful. I can get answers to my inquiries in seconds, answers that once would have taken days, weeks, months or years to receive. Interviews can be conducted via email or social networks, interviews that would have required not only travel, but, in some cases, repeated travel, as people often are reluctant to talk. However, one still has to read books, even though you might think that information in books becomes outdated – it does sometimes – but not as often as you’d think. One woman I know read 150 books – as well as years of study and practice, of course - to write the book she needed to write about perfume. Another writer read a very long book just to use one word accurately in his own. In my own case, one thing the Internet has spoiled is my sense of timing. I feel deep down in my bones that everything should only take as long as one click to finish. Waiting has always been hard. Now, it’s brutal. But, I’m not alone and the Internet is not entirely responsible. Do you know, for instance, what the attention span is for a New York editor who is reading your work? That is, how much time you have to impress her before she moves on? Half a second. That was in the ‘80s. Maybe it was the cocaine then, but I’m sure, by now, with the Internet, and all that clicking all day, her patience is even shorter.
I may be spoiled, but I also find myself wishing I could turn up the brightness on the page when I am reading a book. Most books – even quality paperbacks – are no longer printed on quality paper. The publishers cut costs by printing on a darker shade, which reminds me of the old math paper we had in school for doing preliminary sums. We called it scrap paper. As a publisher, I’m proud to say that Plum Press has always printed on the best quality paper, bright white or light cream. On the other hand, I do sometimes find myself wanting to turn down the brightness of my iPad screen while I use my Kindle reader app.
I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from marathon reading, however. Lots of people have stayed up all night to finish a book only to be groggy and wobbly the next day, but I’ve never heard of anything more serious.
Nevertheless, reading can be dangerous.
Reading has produced a new class. An educated class, regardless of monetary rank in society. Anyone may educate themselves. Even rich people. Trump has proven that rich people do not need to be educated. They have people who do that for them. However, we the people need to be and I’m a firm believer in self-education. Cross-referencing, and not believing everything you read, either online or in books, but checking up on facts through more reading and learning through actual doing. Reading online has produced a more informed electorate. Oh, yes, even after this last election, how many butts are burning from past mistakes, causing more reading and, thus, more learning, to be currently taking place. People are learning how to do things for themselves online: from carpentry to plumbing, from cooking to dressmaking, from herbal remedies to acupressure, we are sharing what we have learned. Every day I go online to learn what is going on in the world, in my world and every other world. I can watch politics or take a break and watch a kitty video. Maybe Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in evening dress. Maybe Michael Moore’s latest remark. Or Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech. I can watch everything from protestors to surfers, the choices are endless and each is being done by fellow humans all over the world. I can comment, I can write and I can share what I know. Shepard Fairey’s new work, his inaugural series, does not depict the new President. We The People is his theme. We can Learn. We can Do. We can Empower Ourselves.
One more thing: Scientists have also found that, not gaming or heroin or cocaine or reading produces the most dopamine: Love does.
©Patricia Goodwin, 2017
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest book is Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author.