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James Edward Whorton Jr

Five Attributes of Self

Sven Birkerts, whose book The Gutenberg Elegies has been excerpted and reviewed widely of late--New Yorker, NY Times Book Review, Harper's--has a provocative argument: that reading literature off the internet diminishes one's selfhood, as compared with reading from a book, which enhances it. The idea is that online, one's hooked into a kind of superbeing, and becomes part of a larger mind, and is no longer an isolated lit-digging individual.

I know I disagree with Mr. Birkerts, even before I know why. Towards figuring out why, it might help to list a few adjectives that describe an autonomous consciousness, in order to consider whether they also apply to my mind surveying the net:

1. ATTENTIVE. Yes, I'm attentive online. Perhaps my attention is a little more scattered than when I'm reading a book, cause on the net I'm usually on the verge of backing out of whatever file I'm in to look elsewhere for something better. It may be my attention is more superficial than when I'm flipping pages. But superficiality isn't new to my mind--it's the same state I fall into when I'm walking in the woods, it's exactly that kind of attention: stop and look at this mushroom, it's orange, gotta look it up later--here's an interesting dung pile, shiny black pellets, might be a marmoset or something--here's one of those baby loblolly pines that looks like a freak wig on the ground, gathering up sap for its growth spurt--

2. DESIROUS. Yes, that which is conscious and apart, desires. My own particular Self is always particularly desirous when partaking of the net. Soon as the Self stops desiring to go on, I log off. And I log off often! In fact, the great quantity of boring stuff on the net makes this place a workshop for me in my own tastes. I've learned a few things about them, here.

3. REBELLIOUS. A self is distinguished by its capacity to rebel. Only individual selves can do this. Can I do it, can I use my heels, can I talk in funny voices and scatter thumbtacks, while jacked in? Indeed I can. Lit on the net is just as readily ridiculed as any.

4. SECRETIVE. A consciousness keeps its own counsel. Like others, I do this superbly online. For example: can you name the passion that stirred in my bosom when I checked out online Chaucer?

The further I consider it, the unlikelier it seems that I am losing my identity in some communal consciousness. I do not blend and diffuse into all of you, while here--rather my own personal alertness, randiness, unmanageability and privacy thrive.

There's another aptitude unique to selves--REVERENCE. While browsing hyperpulp on the net, can I still revere those things I judge deserving of my love? The answer is certainly yes. At every moment on- and offline I am defined by what I hold to be most precious. No technology yet has diffused my devotion to the novel Anna Karenina--and I do not mean here the book of 736 pages, but a certain fantastically complicated performance of the mind of Leo Tolstoy. The book itself, as a thing occupying shelf or lap space, is fine, but it's not indispensable. The quality of mind is what carries me to Heaven, and it would be so with that novel even if I had to read it off a barn wall.

James Edward Whorton Jr. is finishing his doctoral studies at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi .

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