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John Freeman explores e-mail’s dark side

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Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh

If John Freeman’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he’s written a boatload of book reviews for these pages. If his output has slowed lately, it’s because he’s been busy, both as the new editor of the lit mag Granta and with the writing of The Tyranny of E-Mail (Scribner, $25), the subject of, LOL, this e-mail interview.

Tyranny of E-Mail by John Freeman

Was there a particular e-mail that represented the tipping point, after which you had to write this book?

No, but there was a day. A friend visited from Kansas City, and we went downstairs from my apartment to get a coffee. Forty-five minutes later we came back to my apartment, and I said, “Watch this”—and logged on to my e-mail. Seventy-two e-mails had come in during that period. There they marched down the screen like some sort of invading army. I realized then that there’s something biologically impossible about keeping up with the amount of e-mail many of us are getting.

When you unplug from the digital world, do you have withdrawal symptoms?

I just slow down. My eyes relax, and the tangible world comes back to me. I recently lost my cell phone, and I began to feel sort of dreamy. I realized instead of walking down the street, holding my phone, I was interacting with the real world in a way that it’s often easy not to when we’re trying to keep that lifeline to the virtual world alive.

As a literary man, how worried are you that the casual approach to language in e-mail and, especially, texting will erode literacy?

LOL, u r tots worried, arnt u? Seriously? Not very. I think there’s always a tension between visual and spoken language, between oral and textual cultures, and the way we use e-mail often reflects our attempts to speed up the experience of reading.

I think the bigger problem we face is how to replace the deliberation and thoughtfulness in correspondence that letter-writing used to inspire. E-mail doesn’t feel like the natural home for that. Happily, the post is still there, and sending a hand-written letter to someone will make you a hero for a day ... so few people get letters now, it means a lot.

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