These are the admonishments that lead me to periodically question my symbiotic relationship with technology, and to detach from Facebook for up to 24 hours at a time. When I do, the only way I can reliably quell my urge to connect is by losing myself in a book. That’s how I came to spend my summer vacation the way I usually do: by reading novel after novel.
Whether I’m escaping into the latest dystopian thriller or into my careful ration of unread Jane Austen, I’m often struck by the irony of elevating myself from the Internet by indulging in what Austen’s contemporaries regarded as cultural debasement. Well into the nineteenth century, British and American writers, critics and religious leaders regarded novel-reading with a great deal of skepticism. In his history of the Christian novel, Paul C. Gutjahr identifies three chief objections to the emergent genre of long-form fiction:
[N]ovels removed one from the truth through their tendency to “give false notions of things, to pervert the consequences of human actions, and to misrepresent the ways of divine providence.” Virtuous action, and thus the ability to lead a worthwhile life, depended on embracing what was true and avoiding even the slightest hint of dissimulation or falseness. A second line of reasoning argued that novels with their romantic and adventurous tales inflamed the imagination, and thus the passions. Awakening uncontrollable animal instincts once again worked at cross purposes with ideals of virtue, which were heavily dependent on notions of hard work, discipline, and perseverance. Finally, Protestants added a third line of reasoning to these antinovel polemics. They protested that novels were dangerous because they took time away from more worthy activities, principal among these being Bible reading and other devotional practices. Further, they feared that novels, even more dangerously, might so influence American reading tastes that the Bible would come to seem nothing more than “a wearisome book.”
Each of these concerns echoes the complaints we hear about the Internet today. We can also hear the echoes of 18th and 19th century moralists in contemporary hand-wringing over how the Internet is turning us into click-baited, porn-devouring imbeciles. Early American moralists held that novels “were subversive of the highest moral principles or, in short, were the primer of the Devil.” James Beattie condemned novel reading in 1783 because the “habit of reading them breeds a dislike to history, and all the substantial parts of knowledge; withdraws the attention from nature, and truth; and fills the mind with extravagant thoughts and too often with criminal propensities.”
If Beattie’s worries about “criminal propensities” foreshadowed today’s fears about video games inspiring offline violence, there’s even more resonance to his concerns about the mental impoverishment that stemmed from novel-reading. By 1823, the Scottish writer John Gibson Lockhart was reflecting on the improved reputation of the novel, which “was formerly looked upon as a kind of reading only fit for the idle among the young, who might skim over the pages of a novel in the moments of hair-dressing, (when hair-dressing was the fashion); and, if not positively hurtful and demoralizing, was set down as a waste of time, as a relaxation enfeebling the mind, destructive of those common-sense views of life which its romantic or sentimental fictions wished to discredit, as opposed to practical wisdom or useful benevolence.
For every 19th century writer who worried about “enfeebling the mind,” I can show you a 21st-century journalist who claims that the Internet is making us—and our kids—mentally lazy.
In other words, novel-reading was once regarded as an idle occupation, just as Internet use is now. A 1792 essay by Noah Webster complained that “A hundred volumes of modern novels may be read without acquiring a new idea.” And Gallaway sums up the views of the historian Sir James Mackintosh as admitting that “ninety-nine of a hundred novels were valueless, and that these numerous wretched publications combined with the modern origin of the form and its selection of familiar subjects to give the genre an air of frivolity.” Today, we fret over the frivolity of posting photos of their breakfasts, watching kitten videos, or browsing Tinder.
When 18th and 19th century critics worried about the ways in which novels distracted and diminished their readers, they focused particularly on the impact that fiction had on female readers. As Nina Baym notes, novel reading was “viewed as strengthening women’s mental weakness (if the oxymoron may be permitted) and encouraging them in unrepublican habits of idleness, extravagance, and daydreaming.” One article on fiction in late 19th century America quotes an 1884 letter to the Philadelphia Bulletin from a reader who asked: “I am a young woman, twenty-one years old, and am called bright and intelligent. I fear I have seriously impaired my mind by novel reading. Do you think I can restore it to a sound and vigorous condition by eschewing novels and reading only solid works?” The editor of the Bulletin responded that “Patrons of fiction—the large majority of whom are women—waste their time and fritter away their intellectual force upon [worthless] productions…Let them not think that they do themselves no harm by accustoming their brain to insipid food. Like the rest of the moral, intellectual and physical man, if the mind is not exercised it deteriorates, the deterioration becoming more and more apparent after each failure to supply proper aliment.”
If our concerns about the enfeebling impact of the Internet and social media aren’t quite as gendered, they’re still grounded in a world view that regards the cultivation of individual morality, intellect, and productivity as a matter of public interest—and that regards shifts in personal media consumption as potentially inimical to the production of smart, informed, and upstanding citizens. But the history of the novel shows that it’s possible for us to move beyond this suspicion—though it took two centuries for novels to move from objects of derision to an accepted part of the modern reader’s diet.
This transition depended on three key shifts. First, authors consciously engaged in the project of rehabilitating the novel, though this rehabilitation took several forms. As early as the mid-18th century, the novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding were deliberately differentiating their literary undertakings from the popular entertainments that preceded them: in what is described as literatures’s first “G rating,” the title page of Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela promised that “at the same time that it agreeably entertains, [by a Variety of curious and affecting Incidents,] is entirely divested of all those Images, which, in too many pieces calculated for Amusement only, tend to inflame the Minds they should instruct.” In another effort at improving the novel’s moral standing, religious writers—most notably, the onetime fiction skeptic Hannah More—embraced the novel as a vehicle for moral teaching, as opposed to moral degradation. In his article about Hannah More’s 1809 novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, Sam Pickering Jr. argues that by “[c]ombining religious lessons with a novelistic narrative,” More’s book became “the first nineteenth century novel to be accepted enthusiastically by the large religious reading public.”
An analogous effort at rehabilitating the Internet is already underway. From evangelical Christians asking “What would Jesus tweet?” to the Buddhist embrace of “contemplative technologies,” established religious traditions are beginning to explore the ways in which spiritual practices can be translated or extended with digital tools. Blogging has worked its way from the margins to the center of contemporary journalism, followed by podcasting and now, virtual reality. Just as 19th century novelists consciously strived to elevate both their craft and their moral standing, the emergence of dedicated online authors and journalists has helped to elevate the caliber of online content.
But the rehabilitation of the Internet doesn’t rest entirely in the hands of online contributors—just as the rehabilitation of the novel did not occur solely due to the efforts of novelists. George Boulukos argues that the emergence of university English studies helped to elevate the status of the novel as a subject of study, and implicitly, of consumption:
The literary histories produced for the new university market—aimed at aspiring students and newly professional professors—perhaps unsurprisingly drop the social snobbery… and attempt to rescue the eighteenth-century novel (exclusive of Sterne, anyway) from…insistence on its moral degradation. Instead, they…begin to link the novel to a class that insisted on social, moral, and economic progress, and imply that to study the eighteenth-century novel is at once to imbibe and analyze such values.” It was in this context, Boulukos writes, that the critic William Hazlitt was able to argue that the novel “attains cultural value by appearing as a necessary part of a cultured gentleman’s reading.”
If an analogous process of academic canonization is crucial to the Internet’s legitimation, then we’re well on our way. Departments of Internet Studies have now been established at a number of universities, and the field has its own handbook and research association. When I began researching the Internet in 1996, it was still possible to read every study on the social impact of digital technology (as I did within a matter of months); twenty years later, you’d be hard-pressed to keep up with even the top Internet-related research in a single discipline. But academic research on the Internet will only help to legitimate our online activities when courses on video gaming and YouTube move from from the elective margins of the curriculum to its core, and when social media fluency is regarded as a necessary part of contemporary cultural literacy.
Meanwhile there is yet another argument we might borrow for the legitimation of the Internet, and it’s a surprising one: even if the Internet is frivolous, perhaps that frivolity can be neatly contained. An article on the New York Mercantile Library examines the evolving attitudes towards the reading habits of the clerks the library was designed to serve. While novels were initially regarded with suspicion, they were eventually accepted as part of
the cultivation of character for market culture. Novels had the power to seduce men from their absorbing pursuit of wealth, but since they were quickly read and not for “future use,” they lacked the ability to truly “engross” the reader to the detriment of their commercial vocations. They were thus a potentially efficient type of “rational amusement” that “economized” the clerk’s brief free time. In the unstable economic climate of the antebellum years, the genre’s mechanisms of sympathy and identification may have fostered “knowledge of the human heart” necessary to navigate uncertain business transactions still dominated by face to face relationships. The pervasive popularity of novels made them expedient for circulating a shared body of Victorian moral discourse, as recreation shared between men and women.
Today we can make analogous arguments for the economic value of online immersion. Yes, much of our online activity consists of micro-engagements—the 140-character tweet, the evanescent SnapChat. But that’s a strength as well as a limitation: a five-minute Facebook catch-up can be faster than a trip to the office water cooler, but leave us similarly refreshed and ready to dive back into work. And while we may not have a “shared body of moral discourse” in the Victorian sense (thank goodness!), the Internet does offer a medium for sharing ideas and building consensus, in a form as pluralistic as the offline societies in which we live.
The history of the novel gives us every reason to think that the increasingly harsh judgments to which our online lives are subjected —judgments that have emerged in parallel with the growth of online culture, just as early novels gave birth to early critics—may yet give way to an embrace of the Internet as a worthy use of our hours, minds, and hearts. In his history of reading, Robert Danton observes “By the late 19th century, borrowing patterns in German, English, and American libraries had fallen into a strikingly similar pattern: 70 to 80 percent of the books came from the category of light fiction (mostly novels); 10 percent came from history, biography, and travel; and less than one percent came from religion. In little more than 200 years, the world of reading had been transformed.”
Our perspective on the Internet will likely undergo a similar transformation—and in a lot less than two centuries. Until then, let’s remind everyone who criticizes the Internet as a mindless, amoral wasteland that the same was once said about that most revered cultural institution: the novel.