Last month, a contractor doing some work for us accidentally snapped the line that brings the internet to our house. Until the problem could be fixed, we were without service for a couple of days.
This is the point, I guess, when I should offer some cheerful thoughts on the virtues of being offline. In truth, doing without the internet was a pain.
Like many people, I do much of my work online. Luckily, I could use my office down the street to tackle urgent assignments. If our internet access had gone down during the early days of this year’s pandemic, when we were more strictly homebound, then I would have been in real trouble.
My favorite TV shows and a lot of news reach me through the internet, too. Living in a household where the laptops and televisions had suddenly gone mute was strange.
By coincidence, I returned home on the first night of our internet blackout and found a copy of Alan Jacobs' new book, “Breaking Bread with the Dead,” waiting in a package by the door. His book is about many things, but one of Jacobs’ points is that our reliance on online culture has made us more anxious and separated from the wisdom of our ancestors. It’s a message many others have voiced, but Jacobs affirms it with eloquence and grace.
“Breaking Bread with the Dead” might sound like a horror story rolled out just in time for Halloween, but the meaning of the title is more benign. Many of us have heard some variation of the question about which figures from the past might make ideal dinner guests if we could somehow conjure them back. Jacobs reminds us that we can still summon the voices of people long gone if we spend some time with the books they wrote.
He argues that these old books, a rich legacy, are too often neglected as we follow the latest tweet or Facebook post. This hunger for constant connection is really nothing new, he points out, though modern technology has magnified the itch.
Horace, a celebrated poet of ancient Rome, also knew about the struggle to disconnect from the endless public chatter of his day, Jacobs tells readers. Bruised by the storms of political controversies, Horace retreated to a country villa, an ideal spot to get away from it all. “And yet his mind continually twitched toward the mad world he had fled from,” Jacobs writes of Horace.
It’s a twitch a lot of us have felt. Jacobs, a college professor, notes how hard it is for his students to put away their phones during class. He confesses sometimes missing his phone during class, too.
It felt good to sit with Jacobs’ book in a house made quiet because the internet was down. Our service is back, but I’ll try to spend more time offline by choice rather than necessity.