War and peace with my tweets

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 11 Jan 2011

It was time to counter my nascent Attention Deficit Disorder, so the Blackberry was banished to the bedroom and replaced with Tolstoy’s 1,400-page classic.

FOR the past nine months I was caught up in a passionate love affair – with my Blackberry.

It was a torrid, Twitter-fuelled experience that saw me turning to the sleek, constantly-blinking (or was it winking?) hand-held device every few minutes or so.

Just before Christmas, I decided to cool things down. It was a tough decision, but I had to be strong. The social media in its various incarnations – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn – was just taking up too much of my time.

So with a heavy heart, the Blackberry was confined to the bedroom.

Of course, I couldn’t break things off quite so abruptly (I’m only human) so every now and then I’d steal away and check the updates.

Nevertheless, I managed to maintain a near-total, Twitter-free existence for two weeks: a record of sorts.

Having spent nine months wrestling with the haiku-like limitations of Twitter’s 140-character posts, I knew it was time to force myself to concentrate for longer periods of time. I had to counter my nascent Attention Deficit Disorder.

I needed to deal with something that was densely-written, complex and profound – something more substantial than a retweet or a hashtag.

Given the challenge, it was only natural that I ended up with Tolstoy’s 1,400-page War and Peace.

Most people familiar with literature – any literature – will tell you that War and Peace is one of the greatest novels ever written.

Set during the Napoleonic War era (1805), War and Peace concerns the lives, loves and personal battles of a group of Russian aristocrats, their struggles to survive in the midst of all the turmoil.

One of the most remarkable things about the novel is the way Tolstoy was able to weave the private lives of the Rostov, Bezukhov and Bolkonsky families into the great historical events of those times.

Family triumphs and tragedies segue effortlessly into national victories and disasters. The vantage is both grand and yet intimate.

There are extraordinary vignettes: Napoleon taking a powder-bath before the Battle of Borodin and Moscow’s anthill-like desperation in the hours before the arrival of the “victorious” French forces.

Rereading the book, I felt as if I was catching up with long-lost friends. Tolstoy steps into his characters’ worlds. We follow the young and impressionable Natasha Rostov to her first St. Petersburg ball. We march alongside Prince Andrei Bolkonsky on the bloody fields of Austerlitz.

And in Moscow drawing-rooms crammed with social-climbers, we watch as the unworldly Pierre Bezukhov is deftly fleeced of his millions.

Tolstoy revels in the scale of his narrative, shifting between the minutely observed detail and the broad and panoramic.

He charts Napoleon’s initial victories as he marches into Russia followed by the destruction of the Grand Armee as they withdrew across the bitterly cold Russian plains.

As I settled in for the long read, I realised the extent to which my ability to concentrate had been eroded over the past nine months.

Social media had made me jittery and enervated. It had also made me – ironically enough – less adept at really communicating with others.

Are we really “touching base” with our e-mails, tweets and Facebook posts?

Or are we simply hiding behind our online avatars, whereby social media becomes an excuse for our own unwillingness to engage with our fellow beings on a truly intimate level: one deception pressing up against another?

Does simpler, faster and more direct communication really mean we’re actually exchanging views and ideas?

There’s a great danger that we will simply become too impatient to even talk, read and write normally – simply because we believe it’s more efficient to do so via technology.

This sort of funk is extremely dangerous, especially for a writer.

Social media is an extremely useful tool, but it can also be a trap. You mistakenly think you’re actually doing something; developing ideas, testing and promoting them.

At the end of the day, a tweet is only 140 characters. Moreover, the best source of inspiration is real life, of living and observing our fellow beings, which is something technology cannot replace.

Still, it would be foolish for us to turn our backs on the ever-present social media. As I said, it has its uses and it’s ultimately how we choose to use it that determines its ultimate utility.

Even War and Peace, after all, can now be read on Twitter – 140 characters at a time.

Meanwhile, my Blackberry and I have been reunited. We’re very happy, thank you.

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