Getting a handle on my tools.

lake bluff public libraryMy early childhood was fairly peripatetic, but when that part of it ended, around 5th grade, we moved in across the street from the town library.

Having been raised by a librarian, moving in across the street from the library was somewhat analogous to moving in across the street from heaven. I can still remember exactly where the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books were located in the children’s section downstairs, and I can just about feel the industrial carpet through my shirt as I lay down to read whatever was next to them.

Throughout my life, going to the library has involved spending time with books for which I had not intended to reach out a hand. In fact I think that’s how I came on the BTT books in the first place; I know for a fact that I read some sizeable chunk of Maud Hart Lovelace’s oeuvre sitting with my back against that next-to-bottom shelf on which they could be found.

As you can imagine, this occasionally resulted in a trip to the library taking longer, and yielding a much bigger pile, than I’d intended, a fact that was equally true in college and graduate school, which you can further imagine didn’t always do wonders for my workload.

But it is how I discovered Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will and an entire shelf of feminist theory (which I can still see, in the library of the Naftali Building at Tel Aviv University), launching my transformation from an instinctive feminist to an educated one, so it’s not all bad — but on the other hand, let me tell you, when one allows oneself to get temporarily lost in random books in the stacks of Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, it can lead (you know: entirely theoretically) to getting actually, literally lost.

So why do I bring all of this up now?

Because the Internet.

The Internet, I have realized, is One Big (Chaotic) Library, and there you are, wandering down the stacks on your way to the “Israel/Palestine” section, or possibly the “Recipes” shelf, or mayhaps the “Interesting Stories About Scientific Advances That You Can Kind Of Understand If You Read Slowly” department, and boom! You stroll right past baby gorillas practicing thumping their chests! Or an obscure, unknown mathematician who solved an old, thorny problem about prime numbers! (And if you read slowly, you just know you can understand it!) Or a colorful and random appreciation of all things Eurovision!

And just like that, I’m sitting on the metaphorical floor of the library, enjoying baby gorillas or trying to remember what I know about prime numbers.

The up side, of course, is that I find so many utterly fascinating things in my meandering way. Our earliest ancestor! Space flight for regular folks! Everything the Vlogbrothers have ever done, alone or together!

The down side is that I find so many utterly fascinating things in my meandering way.

I mean: The day – still only 24 hours, right? If I’m wandering about the stacks, I’m not sitting on my couch reading the book that’s literally right there, waiting for me!

And I begin to feel a little unhinged when this sort of thing goes on for too long.

This is not the Internet’s fault. This is my fault. The Internet (and Twitter, and BuzzFeed, and Wired, and YouTube, and on and on) are all just tools that I haven’t learned how to use properly yet. I used to know how to keep going past that tantalizing spine in the not-where-I’m-supposed-to-be section of the library when I really had to. I have to teach myself again, is all, and teach myself that “I really have to” includes things that aren’t on deadline, but that are ultimately more important to me than the meandering bit. It’s a constant rejiggering of the hierarchy of importance, and a constant retooling of my skill set in that field. It requires a level of mindfulness that is, I’m guessing, fairly new to the human animal.

But that’s ok. As this young man would no doubt assure me, if I believe in myself, I will get the hang of it, I know it!

Thumbs up for rock n’ roll!

(And libraries).

The Internet (capitalized, as if it were a Deity).

Here’s the thing.

I loves me some Internet. I really, really do. All of our technological bells and whistles are, bottom line, tools, and tools are only as good or as bad as the people using them, and with judicious use, the Internet is one hell of a tool.

I mean honestly! What other tool allows me to order groceries, clothes and books delivered to my house, look up (and look at) the works of Frieda Kahlo and WH Auden, organize in support of freedom in Egypt/Wisconsin/Palestine, and become genuine friends with people I may never get to meet?

A hammer? Yeah, no, a hammer can’t do that. Neither can a dishwasher or a telephone or a whisk.

But here’s the thing that the Internet also does, that hammers, dishwashers, telephones and/or whisks don’t: It works both ways.

When I order Fuji apples, something somewhere gathers that information, and attaches it very, very specifically to me. When I send a Tweet, or buy a book, or click on a picture — that information is squirreled away and put to use.

This, I don’t like so much.

As an Israeli, I long ago made my peace with the fact that people listen to my phone conversations. There are certain things I will never say over the phone, and by extension, certain information that I will never put in an email, Tweet, blog post, or blog comment. It just seems smarter.

But that is somehow less horrible to me than the fact that when I am online, everything — literally everything — that I do simultaneously serves someone else’s goals. I refuse to join Facebook in part because I can’t stand how blatant Zuckerberg is in his gathering of other people’s facts — but the truth is that nobody needs FB to know everything that I might reveal on FB. Because it’s all out there already, being bought and sold, used to further ideas and careers and plans that I have no say in or may, in fact, oppose.

When I use a hammer, the hammer gets nothing out of it. The person who made the hammer has already been paid, as has the person who sold me the hammer. Once it’s purchased, they don’t really care if it’s never picked up again. And, as I say, the hammer has no opinion one way or the other.

Not so the Internet — capitalized, as if it were a Deity.

But there it is. As an avid, daily user of the Internet’s great bounty, there’s pretty much nothing I can do about it (other than occasionally leave false trails — which I do, from time to time, but I’m not so foolish as to believe that my false trails make much of a dent).

I’m not going to go off the grid, or worry too much about the fact that even good encryption is occasionally breached (hello, Gawker!). If I don’t want the world to know that I’m curious about Charlie Sheen and Demi Lovato — or, more to the point: If I want to live in a world where the lives and struggles of complete strangers are not so monetized as to be twisted almost beyond recognition — I won’t click on their pictures. And when I do, I will do so in the knowledge that on that day, I’m part of the problem.

But I will say this: I’ve noticed an odd peace that sometimes comes over me when I’m doing something that can in no way be traced. When I shop at a resale shop, or play a board game, or read a dead-tree magazine. When you read a magazine, no one knows.

Dear Internet: I like that.

PS If you want to read some much more erudite and better-written (not to mention researched) musings on the Internet, read Adam Gopnick’s “How the Internet Gets Inside Us” in The New Yorker. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. (Personally, I printed the piece out to read it, but I presume someone, somewhere already knows that).

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.