After working as a freelance book critic for 10 years and serving as president of the National Book Critics Circle, John Freeman was recently appointed editor of literary magazine Granta. He has also published his first book, The Tyranny of E-Mail, which traces the history of written correspondence and then examines the ways email has come to occupy, in his view, far too much of our time and inner space. We caught up with this multi-tasker to ask how he avoids internet overload.
How is addiction to reading books different from addiction to email?
They’re completely different experiences – the reading of books and literary magazines requires a prolonged submersion; it encourages complex thought, mindfulness and a sense of mystery. Addiction to social media means you are constantly bouncing from one thing to the next; it gives you the idea that silence – the silence of thinking, or reading – is boredom. Another difference: no one has ever looked sexy looking at email.
When you were principally working as a book critic, were you able to stay offline a good part of the day?
Yes, and it was heaven. I worked a lot at coffee shops, and I’d sit there and read for a few hours at a stretch. I’d go home to use email because I didn’t have mobile access. It’s impossible to read deeply if you’re being interrupted all the time, which is what email does if you let it.
Aren’t you sort of advocating turning back history?
No, this is more of an intervention. We can decide to stop selling Uzis because they kill too easily, or using coal-fired plants because they pollute too quickly, or the Concorde, because it might explode upon landing. Email is taking over our working days, but we still have a choice.
Interview by Craig Morgan Teicher