Note: Video at end of story.
By Brian Hieggelke
I came to know John Freeman a few years back as a freelance book critic, where he consistently amazed me with the scope and prolificacy of his output. One day he’d submit an in-depth profile of an author of the likes of John Updike, the next he’d turn out a well-crafted review of an obscure poetry collection. Of course Newcity’s tiny well for book writing couldn’t contain John; he was a contributor to publications across the country including The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. After a stint as president of the National Book Critics Circle, he moved onto Granta, where he created and oversaw the fastest-selling edition in its history, the Chicago issue. He was recently named editor of that publication, on the eve of the publication of his first book. In advance of his visit to Chicago this week, we corresponded. Via email, naturally.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions about your book, “The Tyranny of E-Mail.” The topic is an interesting first book for a literary critic and editor. How did it come about?
When I was president of the National Book Critics Circle, my e-mail went from 60-80 a day to 200-300 a day. Coming home at the end of the day felt like a virtual version of being out of the country for a month. A giant mail dump, only all of it expecting to be answered right away. Keeping up with this volume started to alter my life, and especially my ability to read, to focus. It occurred to me that the biggest change in reading won’t be a new piece of technology, like an e-reader, but simply the attention aperture through which a book has to travel. I was curious how we got here, and after doing some research, I realize it wasn’t an article but a book.
You expand the subject of email to encompass the history of written communication over the millennia, which is a fairly vast topic, yet you distill it into less than a hundred pages. That had to be a considerable challenge, especially to do it in an anecdotal, conversational manner like you did, rather than a textbook style. Can you talk about that element of the book and what went into researching and writing it?
Thanks for saying that. I basically got lost at the library, and I read two books which really blew this topic out to a broader level—”The Culture of Time and Space,” by Stephen J. Kern, which is basically all about the idea of simultaneity, and how it didn’t exist before the modern era, and Tom Standage’s “The Victorian Internet,” which is about the telegram and the first era of information overload. So I knew from an early stage that the telegram and simultaneous time warranted a chapter. I wanted to find similar leaps, though, in which a society comes together all of a sudden through the written word. I realized then that the combination of literacy and mail was one, since high rates of literacy collided with the invention of the modern post-office (and the newspaper), and then of course the creation of the Internet.
When you get to the topic of email, the tone of the book shifts from descriptive to diagnostic, as you weigh in on the implications for all of us brought about by the overload and intrusion into all corners of our lives that email has wrought. As you illustrate out, earlier advances in communications often brought their own perceived burdens at the time, but we now look back on them wistfully in some ways. Do you have any hope that this email mess will settle in somewhere more manageable, and how?
I wish I had a definitive answer, but the anxiety of technology always comes in part from not knowing where it’s taking us. So you see with each new iteration of written communication, a backlash, an era of worry, and then a new landscape. But that pattern isn’t set in stone, and it’s my feeling that we’ve leapfrogged over the body and our biology to a whole new set of issues with e-mail and electronic communication. We spend more time with machines than with our spouses. The technology alters our brain chemistry, and is addictive. It extends the work day. It’s also possible we’ve reached terminal velocity, a muchness which can only destroy. After all, the sheer numbers are mind-boggingly beyond what people used to get by way of phone calls, letters, telegrams, mobile messages. And there didn’t seem to be any recognition, at least in the critical culture, that this wasn’t just a correspondence problem, but a metaphysical problem. That can’t be solved with ten steps. It requires a critical conversation, and the irony is that the media environment in which we work—constantly interrupted, beckoned from all sides, surfing different channels of information—makes it harder than ever for that to happen. So I guess I wrote this book in the hopes that other people would feel less alone in the feeling that somehow this isn’t working. Perhaps out of that will emerge a larger conversation.
Email in its present form has been around for decades now. Have you been folllowing Google Wave, which purports to advance email to a new level of communication, by in essence packaging the attributes of email and instant messaging into a collaborative document rather than a series of emails on a subject? Any thoughts on this or other technological advancements we might make—as opposed to the behavioral adjustments you prescribe—that would ease the email problem?
Yes, and no. E-mail dial-up speeds have increased many many folds, heck it’s not even dial-up; it’s gone mobile too. Gmail has created search and store functions which make old programs seem like they were made of moonrock. Perhaps Google can rearrange our epistemelogical relationship with the world again, just as they did with their search engine, and create a model for correspondence which upends things. But from what I’ve seen of Wave it might be more useable, but the problems of constant connection and interruption will remain. To tackle that, I think we need to think about using the computer less, of relying on old ways of communication which are more effective since they have texture (the letter), intonation (the phone), and the best interface ever created (the face!)
You end the book with some almost “self-help” ideas for managing the problem. I’ve actually started testing one of them by changing my auto-checking of email from every five minutes to every hour and so far, one day in, I can see it having a profound effect. How do you manage your email, and how has it changed over the course of working on this book? How has shifting from freelance book critic and author to the editorship of Granta changed your emailing life? Are you living your “manifesto for a slow communication movement”?
I’m trying. Like any framework it’s a guide, not a rule. But yes, I checked my e-mail this morning and am responding. After another twenty minutes or so I’m going to stop so I can get on with my day. I’ll probably check it again toward noon and again toward three. I won’t check it after 6 or 7 though. All this slows some things down but I feel like I’m doing them better by not tying myself to the machine until the volume of e-mail has shrunk. My inbox is never going to get to zero, and I’ve made my peace with that I suppose. I can’t ignore it, though. As a critic, if I missed an e-mail I might lose work, but there were very few people depending on me in the institutional sense. Granta, however, is different—the issues are an act of collaboration, with the writers and of course the other editors. We have to stay on schedule and people often need feedback to move forward. So I need to be connected and accessible. For this reason everyone we work with has my cel phone, and I have a Blackberry so if I have to look at something on the road I can.
Speaking of Granta, do your contributors give good email?
Actually, they do. Writers are professional attention-payers and lots of them seem to have discovered that they write better if they shut e-mail off, or limit their access to it. So we don’t work with too many serial e-mailers, and many of the e-mail we get from the contributors—often the visual artists, actually—are just beautiful, like letters, only without the paper and the stamps. We’ve got to figure out how to archive them, since it’d be a shame for there to be a break with our past.
Do you anticipate that we’ll see the “Collected Emails of Jonathan Lethem” or some such thing someday, in the same way that letters once formed important literary documents? Is anyone doing anything you’re aware of to even build the foundation of these collections, since, as you describe in the book, email by its very nature generally lacks archival permanence?
I know companies are doing it, and there was a project in Australia at the Powerhouse Museum to hoover up as many e-mails as possible and create an exhibit/archive so that this wonderful archive of the felt refraction of history in everyday life doesn’t vanish. I know biographers are very worried about this on an individual level. Writers aren’t always their own best archivists, so if they don’t preserve the e-mails, it will be up to the people who receive them. Perhaps Microsoft and Google can get involved in something like this and donate some of their profits to creating a broad, nonprofit archive of writers e-mails so that we’re not tacking into the future out of the dark.
Given your book’s lamentations about what we lose in the nuances of human interactions, the irony of us doing this interview via email is obvious. (You and I have had a good professional working relationship as editor and critic for several years based solely on email; we just met for the first time earlier this year so perhaps this venue is fitting.) While journalists are doing more and more via email, the loss of spontaneity and of character insight creates a deficiency that may not offset the gains in efficiency and the ability of a subject to offer more thoughtful, if potentially guarded, responses. What do think about the use of email for interviews?
It’s certainly more convenient in some ways—there’s no tape to transcribe, no time juggling to do, no awkward juggling of one’s notes. But I will probably come out seeming very rational and idea-driven, but there’s no sense of me as a real-life person here, or how we did this interview. So I’ll give you a picture. I am sitting in my brother’s apartment in Santa Monica in jeans and a blue zip-up. It’s weirdly cold here, and his two cats keep walking by like prison wardens on night watch, since they haven’t seen me in six months. The window is open and I can hear the television from next door and further off the buzz of a chainsaw. I drove here from San Francisco last night in horrible traffic and didn’t sleep much, so I look a bit like a slept under an overpass.
Your book is packed with insights, many of which are fascinating, like the discussion of the difference between reading with light reflected off the page and light emitted from the screen, that we will not be able to cover in this interview but could build whole conversations around. So here’s my final question. You’ve long made a living as a book critic and now, for the first time, you’re on the other side of that equation. What’s it like?
This is going to sound chicken, but I don’t know. I decided early on not to read my reviews, and have held to it so far. I always felt as a critic that I was writing for readers, not the writers. And the best reviews to me seemed to speak directly to readers in a way that completely bypassed the writer. Even though this is my book, I don’t feel like inserting myself back into the equation. And there’s little to gain from it. A good review could just go to my head, a bad one might make me agitated and angry. I’m just happy for people to read it,and I’m really glad to be on the road, because I can have the face-to-face conversations with people—some of whom don’t agree of course!—that make it feel like the book is alive in the world, that it has a fighting chance at doing some good.
John Freeman discusses “The Tyranny of E-Mail” November 4 at Barnes & Noble, 1441 West Webster, (773)871-3610, at 7:30pm. Free.