...and the pleasure of feeling sad
A few months ago I decided to take a longer break from social media. There’s a longer story, which it might or might not be interesting to piece together someday. For now I’ll just say that I didn’t like what it did with other people and I didn’t like what it did with me.
In the weeks before that, I finished up my term at the Jackman Humanities Institute in Toronto. The final presentation of the year was done by a brilliant undergraduate and its topic was social media. He talked about something I have since seen brought up often: that designers of social media use the addictive qualities of slot machines to keep users hooked.
In the discussion afterwards an interesting insight came to the surface. We talked about how people who sit at a slot machine are not really engaged or happy or stimulated. Rather, they are in a kind of daze, pulling the lever and watching the wheels turn. I think it was the student who suggested that the “feeds” of TikTok, Twitter, and so on work much the same way. They don’t provide happiness or pleasure as much as a chance to turn off.
In other words: social media’s most reliable product is numbness.
One day I’ll write one of those preening essays about how much my life improved once I quit social media and foist it upon the world. I’ll boast that I learned two languages, wrote a book, started exercising more and learned to enjoy being in the moment. It will, I guarantee you, be wholly annoying. But right now I am in a different place. Most of what quitting social media has given me so far are different shades of sadness.
And… I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
The first kind of sadness was, predictably, loneliness. Being on Facebook is like going to a party. Being on Twitter is like going to a party, but some people have brought billy clubs and the rest are smashing their beer bottles on the wall. However you look at it, though, there’s something exciting going on.
If a grown adult went out partying every night, we might assume they were running away from something, perhaps from a reckoning with themselves. But it seems normal to have that level of social interaction every evening when it’s online. And it turns out that when you sit at home in all senses of the word — alone, forced to digest all of your own thoughts rather than scattering them away — you find out that a lot of those thoughts are melancholy ones.
This phase passed. At some point, I no longer had the jitters of unchecked feeds and notifications. My concentration lengthened, and I started reading with less self-interruption. I discovered new books, some of them waiting on my shelves for years, others recommended by people I met or corresponded with. And then it found me, an entirely new form of solitude.
I would read a wonderful book. You know, the kind that makes you happy to have discovered it and slightly frustrated that you hadn’t read it before, that there were years without that quality of prose or of thought in your life. Inevitably, I’d want to discuss it with someone. And because I was not online, there was no one there.
Alright, I still had ways of sharing parts of it. I’d read paragraphs to my husband, or photograph a page or two and send them to my closest friend. I’d write to the person who recommended the book to me, or ask around until I found someone else who had read it. But all along I knew that if I were online I could just post a picture of the book and five people would pipe up who had read it and were ready to exchange observations.
It turns out to be hard to talk about books with people. This is true even if your day job is professor of literature. Scholars of literature do not talk about literature nearly as much as one might be given to think. (What they mostly talk about is office politics and other people’s careers.) I started to wonder if the secret behind teaching is that you can make a bunch of bright young people read a book and discuss it with you. Like a book club, but with a power differential.
I will confess that I found this sadness hard to bear. Here I was, bursting with half-articulated impressions I wanted to make sense of. I tried to channel this into writing, which sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t. What I really needed was conversation. I realised this once I had a few dinners and zoom calls with people who all happened to be excellent readers. As we talked, I remembered that the kind of connection you have face-to-face about a book is still worlds beyond even the best discussions on social media. When two people face one another, the space in between is not empty. It’s a charged electrical field. A lot can happen in it.
One of these conversations was with a person whom I had just met, and with whom I talked about the recent trend of “coolness” in prose. I had just read a piece about Ottessa Moshfegh’s detachment and was wondering what made the quality so appealing to readers — or, at any rate, to critics. I wondered if this is what’s left to us if we spend our lives on social media: an attenuated, washed out emotional life. Numbness winds up being our main setting. Perhaps it even feels like a relief.
Which brings me to this week. I read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. The memoir + great books combo can be cheesy (something I worry about in my own writing), but this book worked. I think it worked not because Mead revealed all that much about herself, but because she captured a few moods well: what it is like to be a young woman, a little afraid of your own ambition, worried about where to place it or how the world will react; and what it is like to be a middle-aged woman, acutely aware of the things still undone, the dreams it is time to let slip away, and at the same time growing into a new power, unexpected and undefined.
And then, just to break my own heart completely, I read André Aciman’s Out of Egypt. If gelato came in melancholy, it would taste like this book. Out of Egypt is Aciman’s memoir of his childhood in Alexandria, a city it is clear, from the beginning of the book, he will have to leave. His family is Jewish, and although they came to Egypt from the Ottoman Empire decades earlier, they understand the day will come when the winds change and they are forced to move again.
I loved so much about this book but I loved, most of all, the way Aciman paints characters. His family members, their servants, his tutors and teachers, local workers and merchants — all of them feel vibrant, alive, nearly straining to pull off the page. Each might have carried a novel on their own. I was moved, too, by the way Aciman captures the secret brokenness of immigrant family life, even when it is comfortable — the small, daily madnesses, the frictions, the sense of a common loss all the larger for being so studiously and politely ignored.
I fought back tears for at least the last hundred pages.
What I am thinking about, as I rest in the wake of this book, these books, is how delicious it was to be sad with them. The last time I had this specific pleasure must have been twenty years ago, when I was a university student reading Evelyn Waugh and taking my regrets on long nighttime walks in downtown Toronto. And I wondered: did I lose this capacity to enjoy my blue moods because of aging, busyness, responsibilities to others, the endless to-do list? Or did I numb it with news and posts and updates and comments and likes and a scroll that never satisfies and never ends?
If you have read this far, thank you. If you feel so moved, you might let me know: what emotions have you not felt in a while, which feelings do you miss? And if any of your friends would enjoy reading this, I’d appreciate your passing the email on.
CBC Ideas has a new episode out on the history of celebrity. They interviewed me and Sharon Marcus, whose book, The Drama of Celebrity, I reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement a few years ago.
While we’re on celebrity, I also have a short essay on the power of stardom in the very first issue of the European Review of Books. I’m thrilled at this publication for so many reasons: its multilingualism, its uncut pages, and (forgive me, but this is such a thrill) getting to be on the same pages as Ali Smith.
Since I last wrote two more of my columns for the TLS have been published: one on the long history of distraction, and another on medieval moments in unexpected places.
I also contributed to the TLS’s summer reading list — which I’m also going to mine for book recommendations.
I was, to put it mildly, extremely thrilled to find out that Marina Warner reviewed an essay collection on women’s networks edited by my colleagues Emma O’Loughlin Bérat, Rebecca Hardie, and myself for the New York Review of Books. Relations of Power: Women’s Networks in the Middle Ages is available from Bonn University Press.
Oh Irina, thank you so much for this - I have so many thoughts. I will say that this space - Substack - reminds me of an older sort of social media, blogging (other have compared Substack to blogging plenty of times before, of course, this isn't an original take) and how this form of social media, unlike Twitter or Facebook, isn't an instant gratification machine. It is more like a conversation - sometimes a conversation a writer is having with themself, sometimes a conversation they're having with other people, but there's always a time delay, and there's usually not an endless amount to scroll through, even if someone were to go back and read each of your posts - they'd still be finite rather than this ongoing, endless scroll.
When I took a weeklong social media break a few months ago, in March, I found myself having the exact same predicament you describe about books - wanting to talk about them to someone. My partner isn't a huge novel reader, and even when he reads novels, they're for enjoyment and pleasure and not in the way that I read them - i.e. analytically when I'm a critic, or with a deep attention paid to language and pacing and character because as a writer I can't really turn those off anymore (although occasionally a book will sweep me along so fully that I will simply surrender to the story, which is always SUCH a pleasure). I relate so much also to what you wrote about having not felt the way you're describing - alone with your books and thoughts - since you were in college.
I think that reading is, in general, an emotion generating technology in some way, and as such I'm able to continue to feel my feelings via books, even when I'm incredibly numbed out or shut down because of the awful news or the endless envy of other writers and thinkers that makes me feel ashamed of myself and thus divorced from my body.
It's odd, isn't it, that professors of literature, even students of literature, don't get to talk about what they're reading all that often, isn't it? I mean, you might write for an article, or for a paper when you're a student in coursework, but the *talking* about it part... I mean, most of my close friends are readers but we're all always reading different things and recommending things to each other that, realistically, we won't read for years if ever because we all have our own endless to-read piles. And I do miss that, and social media does give me that, to an extent, but not nearly to the depth that I wish it would.
Thank you for writing this <3.
Loved this, and always here to talk about books off of social media! xx