John Freeman: ‘No one ever looked sexy reading email.’
Freeman, who’s also an able book critic, will appear at Miami Book Fair International on Sun., Nov. 15, at 1:30 p.m. in company with the like-minded Hal Niedzviecki, author of The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.
The “sexy” quote implies a charming opposite: Reading a book is sexy. It’s also, Freeman argues in The Tyranny of Email, a deeply humanizing activity, requiring “prolonged submersion” and encouraging “complex thought, mindfulness and a sense of mystery.”
Email — and other forms of electronic communication, including ebooks — are, Freeman argues, profoundly dehumanzing.
“There is a sacredness of text which is lost,” Freeman tells Galley Cat. “It’s tiring on your eyes. You spend more time connected to machines than ever before. The average office worker spends more time with their computer than with their spouse. When you think about that, you realize, ‘Wow, this is like a marriage, and this is not working.”
That may sound like the soft-headed alarmism of a backward-looking utopian, but Freeman insists he’s no Luddite. He readily acknowledges the usefulness of email, the Internet and other new forms of electronic communication.
But, Freeman warns in a long and saavy Booklist interview, “Technology changes us as much as we change technology. That’s why I wrote the book. I don’t have any answers. I’m just trying to think about it, and to raise enough interesting points to put it in a different context.”
Actually, The Tyranny of Email, which starts with a brief history of the past 4,000 years of human communication, does suggest a few solutions, distilled into an essay in the Wall Street Journal: “In short,” Freeman writes, “we need to slow down.”
Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, is among those who find Freeman’s arguments convincing: “Freeman’s impeccably researched, eloquently argued book reveals the many ways this so-called boon to communication and productivity has become a distracting, privacy-sapping, alienating, addicting time-suck. He has convinced me that the new mantra for our times ought to be Tune out, Turn off, Unplug.”
I’ve known John Freeman since he first started out as a freelance book critic, selling reviews to first dozens and then hundreds of newspapers and magazines around the country and the world. I was always delighted to include a John Freeman review in the book pages of the SunSentinel, where I was book editor at the time.
His output was prodigious: He reviewed four books a week, and he didn’t specialize in the short and easy: He’s one of the few reviewers to tackle Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), William Vollman’s seven-volume, 3,000-word treatise on violence.
Freeman, who lives in New York and London, served as president of the National Book Critics Circle during the early years of the continuing crisis in old media. He demonstrated against the loss of book review sections in newspapers, and wrote often and well in defense of book reviewing as an essential feature of the cultural landscape.
Recently Freeman was named editor of Granta, a lively British literary magazine. Of course, like all old media, Granta has a website, where much of its content can be accessed, an irony Freeman discusses with Booklist.
“Well, we have to do both,” he concedes. “There is a significant audience that wants to read Granta online.” But, he adds, “the primary interest is the magazine you hold. So the photographs are printed as finely as possible. It’s well designed as an object, and you interact with it as an equal.”
In a Granta interview, the decline of newspapers still lies heavy on his mind: “The consequences of this industry’s self-knee-capping can be seen now in the US. Book sales are way down. Newspapers served a function in the cultural life of America which has yet to be replaced, and may never be recreated. This worries me.”
As you can see from this talk at FORA.tv , Freeman is a congenial public speaker, able to convey complicated ideas in a clear and entertaining way. You won’t want to miss him at Miami Book Fair International.