Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, joins Zibby to discuss her latest book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. The two joke about the irony of their meeting about this book on Zoom as well as all of Pamela’s promotional coverage on social media. They also talk about the pandemic’s effect on our online activity, how our online consumption is a result of marketing messaging, and the relationship between parenting and technology.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Pamela. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.

Pamela Paul: It’s a pleasure to be back. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s sort of ironic that we’re on the internet as we’re having this conversation. For old times’ sake, you should’ve been here in person.

Pamela: I know. Everything I say and do is ironic with this book, like Instagramming about it, like tweeting about it. Every time I post something about it, I use an exclamation point and an emoticon, both of which have cemented the death of the period, which is one of the things we’ve lost to the internet.

Zibby: I actually thought about that one probably the most. I had this conversation recently with my daughter where I asked her to text something to someone because I was driving. She showed it to me quickly. I was like, “No, you forget the period.” She was like, “I don’t use periods.” I was like, “Of course, you do.” She’s like, “No, you’re not supposed to.” I was like, “Yes, you are.” Then I open up your book, and I was like, ugh.

Pamela: It’s really crazy. Everything that we learned in Strunk and White is not true online. It’s still true in what I think of as book writing and real writing. I love a good, deployed exclamation point in a novel. It can be effective. In a tweet or in an email or a Slack to someone, you need at least seven exclamation points. It really is the opposite. It’s, never use a period, always an exclamation point in online writing. Then in print writing, in what I sometimes think of as real writing because I’m a little snobbish that way, it is, always use a period, and only use an exclamation point sparingly. To use a period, you can come off like a real jerk. It is better to thank you with nothing at all rather than use a period. Obviously, it’s best with three exclamation points, but better not to use a period because that’s just sarcastic.

Zibby: You know, you’re so right. I remember right after I went to business school, I tried writing this novel. I was working with my other friend from business school, Lea Carpenter, who went on to be this great novelist herself. I had all these exclamation marks in my manuscript. I remember she had this huge comment. She’s like, “Zibby, you cannot use exclamation marks in fiction like this.” I was like, “Really?” I have been self-consciously using exclamation marks since 2004 and, every time, thinking I’m doing something wrong. I’m like, I’m just going to sneak one in. I’m just going to sneak in another one. Now you’re sanctioning the whole thing. It’s amazing.

Pamela: It’s funny. What I tried to do in this book, it’s not just noticing that this new thing has happened. The new thing is the exclamation points. The old thing, the thing that isn’t there anymore is the period. It’s weird that we haven’t talked about it more.

Zibby: It’s true. I have to say, I was kind of depressed after reading this because I miss all of these things. I long for these days. I have such deep nostalgic yearnings for so many of the ones. Let me see. I dogeared all of this stuff. Oh, my gosh, the bookish boy was actually very troublesome to me as the mom of two sons, that you don’t see guys just lounging about reading as much as you used to because now they’re all playing video games and doing whatever else. I saw a man on an airplane yesterday reading a David Sedaris novel in a hardcover. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. Are you loving it?”

Pamela: I have three children. Two of them are boys. I have to say, a lot of their peers don’t necessarily read. Some of them do. What’s kind of terrible is that the culture really does discourage boys from reading. The point in the book that I make is so many of the things that drew boys to book, the internet does. The internet is very seductive, as we all know. Underscoring all of this is that we are all complicit. We are willing participants in the internet, including me. It’s not all negative. It’s more complicated than that. I hope I didn’t depress you too much.

Zibby: No, no, no.

Pamela: Some of the things are good that they’re gone, right?

Zibby: Yes, that is absolutely true. I didn’t mean to say it that way. I’m glad I can remember people’s birthdays now. I never used to be able to do that, things like that. Medical forms, huge lifesaver. I wasted so much time filling those out even just ten years ago, by the way.

Pamela: It’s interesting. We are so focused as a culture, and especially in the media and online, to constantly look forward. We’re still tearing our hair out over it and wondering, what is going on? Right now, for example, the headlines are all about Facebook and Instagram and what the company has known and not known and what has been manipulated. Again, we’re looking at constantly moving forward. What I wanted to do was say, wait a minute, let’s just pause for a moment and think about where we were. Part of that exercise is to make us all stop and think, wait a minute, we actually do have a choice with a lot of this. We do have a choice. It’s interesting to me that with the internet, which is really a product, a service — everything that we use on it are products and services. With technology, we’re always told to upgrade, to adopt, to download that app, and that if we don’t, we’re sort of ignoring the future. We’re a luddite. We’re somehow holding onto the past. Yet those are just marketing messages. We get marketing messages about sweaters, about face cream, about toys for our kids. A good number of times, a good amount of the time, we say to ourselves, oh, that’s nonsense. I don’t actually need that sweater. That face cream doesn’t actually do anything. This toy, my kid is going to hate. It’s going to break in five minutes. We listen to this marketing and messages, and we take it with a grain of salt. We’re skeptical consumers. Strangely, with technology, we’re not. It’s almost like we kind of have bought into all of those messages. The truth is, we don’t have to do any of these internet-y things if we don’t want to just like we don’t have to buy a new pair of jeans if we don’t want to.

Zibby: I kind of need to because none of my jeans fit, but that’s okay.

Pamela: Well, that is the pandemic and what it has done to us.

Zibby: I loved your section, too, on benign neglect. I really thought that was my mother’s expression. I didn’t know it was so widespread as to make it into your book. She was always criticizing — not criticizing. Sorry, Mom, if you’re listening. She was always suggesting that I hovered too much and that benign neglect was the way to parent. I guess you would agree that? I don’t know.

Pamela: Yeah, I agree with a lot of it. I have to say, one of the things I love most about the book is something I had really very little to do with. That was the illustrations, which are by this amazing illustrator, Nishant Choksi. I think that this one is one of the ones that has this amazing, funny illustration. So does another parenting one, which is a parent’s undivided attention, which has this little child about to fall off a cliff while the mom is taking a selfie. Sadly, so true. Well, almost. Hopefully, no one has died or will. I think that a lot of the ways in which we use the internet and the ways that we allow our children to use the internet — again, I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s about us. It’s about the parents as much as it is about kids. One of the main reasons, for example, that people say, I finally got my kid a phone, is because their child is commuting to school. They say, I want my child to be able to get in touch with me. I want to be able to reach my child. When you think about that, really, that’s about control for the parent. It’s really hard. I’m not judging anyone because I understand it. I get it. It’s about, yeah, it would be really nice to reach your kid anytime, but if you think back to what it was like before kids all had phones, what did parents do when they wanted to get in touch with their kids during the school day? They either waited for them to get home and or they would call the school, but only in an emergency. Think about that. That was deliberate. That’s just the way it was. That’s what we were used to. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something good in that, both for kids and for us as parents.

Zibby: It’s true.

Pamela: It’s hard.

Zibby: When you have the options there, it’s hard not to use them. It’s tempting.

Pamela: It is tempting. Look, the internet makes a life a lot easier. That’s why there’s no way to write a book about the internet and say, oh, it’s all horrible. Certainly, think about the pandemic, and especially during lockdown. The internet was a lifesaver, literally. It was the way that people got access to health information, to news, to connecting with their loved ones, to being in touch with people they needed to be in touch with. For those who were able and lucky enough to work remotely, that meant their livelihood. It’s really almost impossible to imagine just how terrible the pandemic would’ve been without the internet.

Zibby: I know. Every day, I was holding my breath that the Wi-Fi was going to just completely conk out. I was like, today’s going to be the day. That’s it. I’ll be disconnected. It’ll just be the kids and us and everything.

Pamela: Terrifying. Yet what’s so funny is that as the pandemic went on, I think we realized it was a very useful lesson in — first, part one was like, oh, my god, thank goodness we have the internet. This is a lifesaver. Then it was like, wow, what happens when everything is on the internet? What happens when our entire lives is internet? Then that was a really useful lesson. Especially for parents, it became really clear that no matter how much educators had argued for all kinds of uses of the internet in classrooms, reducing the classroom experience, reducing education to online only was really tough on kids and parents and teachers. You definitely lost a lot when you don’t have a real, live teacher coming into a classroom with all of that energy and having her eyes on everyone in the classroom and being able to bring in kids to circle time who didn’t want to be lured in and knowing what’s happening in the back row and seeing the ways kids are ignoring one another or connecting with one another. For kids, imagine if, for nursery schoolers, for kindergarteners not to have those social connections, and then for high schoolers and middle schoolers not to be able to catch someone’s eye, how do you start a friendship? How do you talk to someone? How do you make connections with other kids without anything, any interpersonal reaction, any of the bodily, facial, hand signals, vibes that we get when we’re just in the room with someone? All of that was gone. I think every parent noticed the difference and the losses there.

Zibby: A hundred percent. We’ve had so much emotional setback we’ve had to climb our way out of. Although, it was so interesting because, of course, now that school’s open, I’ve had back-to-back weeks of various classes where everybody has to go remote because someone has COVID in the class or something. This week, my son is here. Just an hour ago, I heard the teacher say to them, “Tomorrow, we get to be back in school.” Literally, all the kids cheered. They were like, “Yay, back in school!” I was like, this would never have happened before, ever.

Pamela: I know. If you want to know how to get kids to like school, take it away. Then we’ll see how happy they are.

Zibby: Could’ve used something a little more subtle, but yes.

Pamela: Yes, for sure.

Zibby: So why this book? What made you do this? How long were you thinking about it? Why turn it into a book? The whole story.

Pamela: There are a few different things that were going on. One is that when we talk about the internet, as I mentioned earlier, we’re always, eyes forward, eyes on the next thing. What’s the next upgrade? When’s the new product? What’s the new app? How can I adapt? What does this mean for my future? Then maybe we sometimes talk about, wait a minute, how did we get here? How did this thing become so popular? How did we all end up using Lyft or Zelle or whatever the internet toy is of the moment? What I think we don’t do a lot of the time is think back and say, wait a minute, what was it like in the before times? What did we used to do instead of this? How did we wish people birthdays? How did all of our college roommates talk to each other before the internet? How did we all connect? It’s hard to think. We didn’t all get into group phone calls. No, we actually waited for reunions. Maybe we set up fun weekends where a bunch of us could get together. You didn’t have a group chat. It was forcing me to think about, as you go through your daily life, what are all the way in which one uses the internet? Then what did we do before that? Scrolling back and pausing and saying, remember what that was like? Also, does it have to be this way?

Then the other part of it, too, is that I thought not everyone who reads this is going to be as ancient as I am. They’re not going to remember all these old-timey things. I actually thought it would be really instructive. Two of my kids have read it so far. It’s news to them. They don’t necessarily know all of this. They haven’t experienced it. They are digital natives. I’ll give you one example of a technology thing that happened with one of my kids. This is not an internet thing, but I found it really instructive. Like most people, when you get a car, you have three sets of keys or something. There’s that one key that’s the key of desperation that does not have the remote on it. It’s just a key. I couldn’t find the other keys one day. I took that key out. I guess I hadn’t taken it. I went outside with my six-year-old daughter to get into the car. I opened the door with the key. She was like, “Oh, my god, you can open a car with a key?” It did not occur to her. Of course, that’s what we did for years and years and years. That’s essentially a metaphor, really, for the ways in which the internet has become so engrained in our daily life, that we really don’t remember what it was like back in the olden times. Then the immediate impetus for this book, too, was that I wrote a piece for the op-ed section of The Times. It was an op-ed called “Let Children Be Bored Again.” Actually, my working title was “The Lost Art of Boredom” because I really missed those moments of boredom. I was trying to cultivate them in my life because, like most people, I have my most productive ideas, thoughts when I’m in the shower. It’s really annoying because you’re like, ah, I got to rinse out my condition so I can go and write this down before I forget it. There’s a reason why we have those creative thoughts in the shower. It’s because we got nothing else to do. We know how to wash our body and our hair, so your mind wanders and does other things.

Now we don’t really allow for those moments of our minds wandering because we have the internet. I grew up constantly languishing in the backseat of the car. If I wasn’t getting along with my brothers at that moment and we weren’t playing some kind of game like car bingo or whatever, I was subjected to my parents’ horrible music coming from the front. I just stared out the window. My brain went where it went. It struck me as a parent that now there’s no chance of that happening to my kids. There are so many podcasts we could listen to. We don’t even all have to listen to the same thing. Once they have their own devices, everyone can be listening or doing their own thing. One person can be playing Fortnite. Another person can be listening to a music podcast. The third person could be listening to an audiobook. Everyone is constantly entertained. I thought, what do we lose? With all those gains — they are gains — what is it that we miss out on? It’s interesting how you said earlier, and I won’t dwell on this any further, but that the book was depressing. When I was thinking about what to write about, I was thinking, I have all these feelings towards the internet and the way in which our lives have changed for the better and for the worse. A lot of it makes me upset and a lot of it makes me angry, but I want to steer away from those emotions. I want to get to maybe a more nuanced, slightly bittersweet place of, hey, let’s take a moment. Let’s take a moment and pause and reflect and think about these things for a while. Those were the hundred things. I have to say, it started off as 168, but it ended at 100.

Zibby: I swear I did not mean that this was a depressing read, full stop. I did not mean for it to come across that way. I just meant I was longing for some of these olden days when things were simpler. This reminded me, but it reminded me in a good way. Those rose-colored glasses from when you’re younger and everything seemed great with innocent trips to the beach with an outdoor shower and the sunset, everything seemed perfect, but of course, it wasn’t. I’m sorry if it came across that you wrote a depressing book. I totally enjoyed the book. It was great. It’s great to remember and take stock. Honestly, the whole book is an exercise in mindfulness, really. It’s saying, here’s where we are. Don’t take this for granted. Look at this. Analyze it. Do you like it? Do you not like it? Think about it. Don’t let it just pass you by.

Pamela: It’s funny. I think a lot of it is also really funny, the kind of things that we did in the pre-internet era. I just posted on my Instagram, notes that I passed in class. I’ve kept them all. I have all the notes I passed. I have them in an accordion file, which is one of those things that most people don’t have anymore, physical files and file cabinets. I have them. The tabs are marked by grade. I pulled out some of them. They amuse me to no end. Of course, at the time, we took it incredibly seriously. The whole passing notes thing, you could get caught. Your note could be read. An enemy could find your note. A teacher could get your note. You could get in trouble for what you wrote in notes. Yet we all did it. That was the most fun and exciting part of being in class. It’s interesting now because, of course, kids are often on a device in class, and they can go online. They can text each other, so that’s the version of passing notes. There’s something about having these physical objects that I just love. Now when I look back at them, they’re pretty hilarious.

Zibby: When you talk about things you’ve lost, I don’t know about you, but for anybody that I’ve lost who has passed away, the first thing I do is take an inventory on what I have left that they have written. Do I have a birthday card? Do I have a note? What pictures do I physically have? Sometimes later, I’ll go searching through emails, but it’s not the same. I hold onto those cards like they’re a true gift. That’s something else I feel like you lose. It’s just not the same when you lose that and migrate all to digital.

Pamela: Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I’m assuming you have baby albums, right? Did you make baby books for all your kids?

Zibby: Of course, yes.

Pamela: I don’t know if everyone does anymore. We certainly don’t print out as many photos. I don’t know about you. Do you print out all the photos that you take?

Zibby: I have to say, I should turn my video back on because I have a whole wall that is photo albums. I have started paying my son who’s fourteen; he makes me a photo album every month through the photos app and makes it on Shutterfly. I have a photo album from literally every month of my life.

Pamela: You’ve done an amazing hybrid internet/real photo thing.

Zibby: No, I’m not pasting them in anymore. You’re right.

Pamela: I have all those photo albums. Of course, they were always in a kind of disorder, at least in my life. Half of them would be 4x6s. Some would be 3x5s. Some would be glossy. Some would be matte. Some would be faded. Some would be ripped. Some would be Polaroids. It was a mess. It’s a mess in there. It is interesting because I do think when you go through those physical objects, it just brings back a lot, even the disorder. You can be like, oh, yeah, I remember I pulled out that photo in order to use it for this project. Then I put it back in when I was done. I must have put it in the wrong place. A bunch of things just come flooding back to you when you have the physical presence of actual 3D objects.

Zibby: I literally have a tote bag in the back bottom of my closet hidden away — it’s this black tote bag with some magazine that’s no longer in business — stuffed full of negatives because I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t want to lose them. I don’t know where to put them. What if I need them? I don’t know. I hear you on that.

Pamela: Speaking of magazines, there is a thing — one of the chapters in my book is on magazines. Yes, they still exist, some of them, but so many are gone. They’re not the same as they once were. Remember how thick the September magazines used to be and how exciting it was, if you had a long flight, to go to the newsstand at the airport and be like, I’m going to treat myself to every single magazine I want? You would have a heavy stack in your arms. No longer.

Zibby: It’s true. I still do that for my kids, though, sometimes. If there’s anything that looks interesting, I’m like, here, have a magazine. Enjoy the flight. Take five minutes in case your iPad dies or something.

Pamela: There’s something to those National Geographics.

Zibby: Also, even with InStyle, I remember when they started doing features inside celebrities’ homes. I was like, no way, we get to see inside celebrities’ homes? Now on Instagram every day, it’s like, here I am in my living room, from every single person.

Pamela: Right. Who needs Star Tracks or whatever, all of the tabloid magazines with all the photos of stars? They’re all over the internet. Of course, what’s funny is I personally never looked at them on the internet, but I did really like, back in the day, to go and grab a bunch of those. I love People magazine. I loved grabbing a bunch of those gossip-y magazines on occasion at the dentist or the doctor’s and looking through them. Even though the internet has so much on it, somehow, the glut of information, it’s too much. I never actually sit down and be like, you know what, I’m going to look at some nice photos of owls today. Let’s go on Google Earth and see what it looks like in Norway right now. I never do it.

Zibby: No, me neither.

Pamela: But you could.

Zibby: Yeah, meet you in Norway. This is so fun. Obviously, the book starts so many conversations. You are never going to be bored at a dinner party again the rest of your life, if we ever go back to dinner parties, because there’s so much to discuss. Everyone has a story on everything. In a way, it’s a collective conversation that you’ve started, which is awesome.

Pamela: Thank you. We all talk on occasion about one or two of these things. They come up. Oh, yeah, remember when? Remember that? I thought, what if you gather them all up in one place and look at the accumulation, the cumulative effect? It’s really kind of startling because it drives home just how much things have changed.

Zibby: It’s so true. Wow. After this project, what’s on your docket aside from — I’m assuming you’re continuing with your own podcast and The New York Times Book Review and all that, or maybe not. I don’t know. Question mark.

Pamela: Yeah, I have a very, very full-time job at The New York Times and also hosting the weekly “Book Review” podcast. I have three full-time kids. My last book was a picture book before this. Actually, I’m working on another one of those. I really do love, love, love books for children. Though my children are not in that picture book-reading demographic, although they do enjoy them as an art, I’ve never totally let that go. I love that format. That’s my next thing.

Zibby: Me too. I love children’s books. I’m like, are you guys really getting too old for these? Not yet, but soon.

Pamela: You’re never too old for children’s books.

Zibby: That’s true. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know you gave some the last time you came on.

Pamela: Oh, gosh. Look, I have a dog in this race. My advice is always, read, read, read lots of books. Read books because I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. It’s really hard to deviate from there. My children like to write as well. They ask the same thing. Can I take a writing class? This and that. My answer is always, really, the best thing, the best class, the best thing to do is to read and to write. There was an anecdote that I read recently. I’m going to forget what it is because one of the things we’ve lost to the internet is our memories, and I’ve lost mine. There was just this great — oh, I think it was Sinclair Lewis who was invited to teach a class or to give a lecture on how to become writer way back in the day, like in the twenties or the thirties. He just got up and he said, “Everybody go home and read,” and he walked off. That was the end of the speech. I’m totally paraphrasing this anecdote. Someone will surely google it, as we now can do, and be like, you know what, you got that wrong. It wasn’t Sinclair Lewis. It wasn’t in the twenties and thirties. What he actually said was X. That’s one of the things the internet has brought us.

Zibby: Amazing. Pamela, thank you. Congratulations on pub day, I should’ve started off by saying. Sorry that I’m doing this all in reverse. Congratulations on 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. At least, one thing we’ve gained is the ability for us to have this conversation right now, so there you go.

Pamela: There you go. Next time, I hope, in real life, Zibby.

Zibby: Yes, me too.

Pamela: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Have a great day. Bye.

Pamela: You too. Bye.



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