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29 December 2010

My afternoons with Montaigne

When the novelist Yiyun Li rationed her use of the internet, she found herself ignoring too many ema

By Yiyun Li

A little over a year ago I disconnected myself from the internet, a technology-unfriendly decision for someone whose husband works in the IT industry. The reason for this decision: as a mother of two young children who teaches full-time and writes books, I don’t have much time left for reading. Idecided to give up web-surfing to stay a better, calmer bookworm.

I couldn’t possibly be entirely internet-free, but I started by limiting my connection time to 30 minutes a day, reducing it two weeks later to 15 minutes. And those precious minutes included all the business emails with agents, editors and publishers.

At the beginning it required much discipline. There were the Facebook friends who beckoned me with their updates; there were the Twitterings that had functioned as the soundtrack of my days; there were various websites, relevant or not so much, which somehow I had led myself to believe to be essential for my daily maintenance. Above all, there was the habit of mindlessly opening a website, looking for something that was not there, and, unfulfilled, looking elsewhere, one page after another.

Research has been done on how the internet affects us, but because I don’t use the internet much now, I can’t google those experts’ opinions and reproduce their wisdom here. What I can report is how being disconnected has changed the pattern of my day and my life. Take my morning: I used to turn on the computer when I got up; with two children to get ready for school, what else could one squeeze into the craze of breakfast-cooking, lunch-packing, tooth-brushing, homework-hunting, but a few minutes of surfing the internet over a becalming cup of coffee? How happily surprised I was when I was proved wrong. The five or seven minutes spent reading some publishing gossip or an acquaintance’s acquaintance retweeting
a joke turned out to be just the right amount of time for a chapter of War and Peace or an intense battle in the Iliad.

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Since my disconnection, I have reacquainted myself – and in some cases have gone from being a mere acquaintance to a close friend – with those too outdated to catch up with the trend for twittering or facebooking: Homer, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Bishop – the list goes on. I am aware that my attachment to these new friends is one-sided and unrequited: they neither know nor care about my existence. On the other hand, they are much more interesting to listen to, and fun to argue with. As my afternoon friend, Montaigne – I call him that because I read him mostly after 4pm for half an hour before I pick up my children from school, the same half-hour I used to fritter away on the internet – said of reading the ancients:

I am pleased at this, that my opinions have the honour of often coinciding with theirs, and that at least I go the same way, though far behind them, saying, “How true!” Also . . . that I know the vast difference between them and me. And nonetheless I let my thoughts run on, weak and lowly as they are, as I have produced them, without plastering and sewing up the flaws that this comparison has revealed to me.

When I first read these words I wanted to agree loudly with Montaigne. It’s the same pleasure for me to discover this or that thought of my own, no bigger than a tiny drop of water, in the vast ocean of Tolstoy’s thinking; the same pleasure to eavesdrop, next to Turgenev on a summer night, a group of young boys speaking of death and fate. Even better is when you can disagree with a great mind, which I have often done, too, with some secret and unabashed joy, as in the case of my yelling at Iris Murdoch or shaking my head at Graham Greene.

There is a downside of staying disconnected – I have accumulated too many emails, unread and unreturned; I have neglected people from time to time. I have relaxed my schedule a little, though if the internet functioned before as an addictive distraction, I now have the
opposite problem: more than ever, I am addicted to reading, and the moment I have to get on to the internet I become impatient. But these symptoms, at least in my case, are happily relished. l

Yiyun Li was born in Beijing and moved to the US in 1996. Her most recent book is “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” (Fourth Estate, £16.99)

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