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John Freeman: ‘No one ever looked sexy reading email.’

November 5, 2009

freemantyrannyThat quotes comes from a Time Out New York interview with John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine and author of an impressive first book, The Tyranny of 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.

John FreemanBut, 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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    November 5, 2009 3:12 pm

    Decision time. I had planned to sit in on David Wolman on Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, Roy Blount, Jr. on Alphabet Juice, and Thomas Mallon on Yours Ever: People and Their Letters Sunday, Nov. 15

    Now, with the reading of this blog I am faced with an option I had overlooked, Thanks Chauncey.

    Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

    “The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox” sounds like the title to an epic porno movie catering to computer geeks.

    What? He started with the sexy talk.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 5:18 pm

    I will agree there’s nothing more fetching than the sight of a good-looking woman lost in a book. But that’s the least reason to champion reading and challenge electronic communications, let me hasten — HASTEN, I say! — to add.

  3. Tommy permalink
    November 5, 2009 6:08 pm

    No one ever looked reptilian or simian reading email either.

    Technology does change us, but only to the degree we allow. We are not talking about a devastating car wreck or a terminal disease here, it’s just e-mail.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 8:32 pm

    Ah, Tommy, I thought you had a more romantic soul.

  5. Alexis permalink
    November 5, 2009 8:38 pm

    Well, then I don’t think he would appreciate his book being discusses in this electronic forum. Nor the attention.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 9:00 pm

    Alexis,

    But blogs and the Internet are like automobiles — no matter how much you may hate them, and their effect on people and other things, you can’t make a living without them nowdays.

    More’s the pity.

  7. Alexis permalink
    November 5, 2009 9:08 pm

    i wasn’t being serious. I bet he welcomes all the “evil” type of attention. it is just amusing he has to welcome the thing he hates.

    but also, we don’t form a relationship with machines. we are trying to connect to the people the machines link us to.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 10:51 pm

    But like Freeman says, our tools change us, and in this case, not for the better.

  9. Alexis permalink
    November 5, 2009 10:57 pm

    different doesn’t always equal bad. we wouldn’t have this discourse without technology. and I would know way less about what was going on in my sister’s life if it wasn’t for texting.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 5, 2009 11:06 pm

    We had the telephone, the letter, and the face-to-face conversation. And when you were alone, you were actually alone. No matter what we’ve gained with digital technology, it’s come at a tremendous cost. But as Freeman argues, we do not have to mindlessly adapt to new tools and toys. We can choose to step back and be the master, not the slave, of how we use them. But that’s not much happening now.

  11. Tommy permalink
    November 6, 2009 1:16 am

    What’s this about my soul?

    My romanticism is reserved for people and the occasional memory evoking object. I am not going to get all dewy-eyed over people reading e-mails and the evils of electronic communication. If I ever become sentimental over software or affectionate for applications you have permission and the duty to smack some sense into me. As of this moment I view computers and the like as Freeman does, as toys and tools here for my amusement and benefit. I could say the same thing about books. I have the potential to succumb to unhealthy submersion in the form of printed literature as well as electronic. Either way I run the risk of leaving myself stunted, emotionally retarded and crippled in the humanity department. I guess I have to tell myself (as a pretty sharp dude once said)
    be the master, not the slave

    I am glad you are writing about this subject and I applaud Freeman for asking the questions.

    I was hoping you would try to sway my decision one way or the other; Freeman or Wolman and Blount Jr. exposition.

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 6, 2009 12:25 pm

    Tommy,

    I wasn’t disparaging your lack of romanticism towards computers and such, but toward books. Perhaps I misperceived your meaning.

    As for choosing among those three books, with apologies to John Freeman, whose book I can recommend without hesitation, I must say that Blount has the most impressive track record. And he’s funny, too.

  13. Tommy permalink
    November 6, 2009 1:05 pm

    No, I am still in love with books. And the characters in them. And the people who write them. And the people who read them.

    It’s quite understandable that you would misperceive my meaning. This conversation taking place without the aid of inflection and facial expressions is highly prone to communication breakdown and loss of meaning.

    Thanks for the input, I have made up my mind. Blount is on my Miami Book Fair Sunday itinerary.

  14. Tommy permalink
    November 6, 2009 1:11 pm

    And the people who lend them to me. And the people I discuss them with.

    Also, Its quite understandable that I would misperceive your meaning. I have been known to do that in face-to-face conversations.

    Huh? What did I just say? Now I have misperceived my own meaning.

    Time to go outside.

  15. November 8, 2009 11:47 am

    What is interesting in my younger brother and I had this discussion about 4 days ago. What we talked about was how it affects business too. You used to meet and make decisions face to face. Actual people dealing with people. The cell phone makes you slaves to your work at times. It is always there. If you have a real bad jerk for a boss you can almost be hunted at times. It is amazing what we did before all these gadgets. Now we know multiple- tasking may actually be counter productive.

    What we do is to make business fast. What are we actually producing to record on our computers ? I do not know the answers just as Freeman does not. I think there is a bit of feeling helpless as money will dictate where this goes. I doubt it will go back. It will just be to what degree we go forward.

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