Emily and I On the Internet
SITTING at my window on the Internet, I see myself as a boy reading ''Ken Ward in the Jungle,'' on the shady lawn of our town's Andrew Carnegie Free Library. ''I've got the world on a string,'' said a song of the day, and books put that string around my finger.
Now the string is a phone line to a new free library -- the vast collection of books, poetry, and art that is expanding amid all the infojunk on the Internet -- the global computer network.
I unlock this literary cyberspace with a few taps on my computer keyboard. I imagine Emily Dickinson looking over my shoulder and murmuring: ''There is no Frigate like a Modem/ To take us Lands away/This Traverse may the poorest take/ Without oppress of Toll.''
Even my slow old modem would link Emily to the Internet, and she could pursue ''prancing Poetry'' around the globe, or E-mail her famous ''letter to the World/ That never wrote to Me.'' But not without a toll. I pay $2 an hour plus $5 a month for my Internet time.
Reading words on an upright screen is not like leaning against a tree, changing positions with the sun, a book in one hand and a peanut butter sandwich in the other. But the Internet lures like a different childhood delight: The hours I spent with playthings such as Erector sets and miniature electric motors kits from the Johnson Smith catalog.
The Internet is toylike, too. Let's see, can I make this thing work? It's working! I found out what I did wrong. Now it's doing something I didn't know it could do. Emily, look!
It's a little like a pet turning out to be more clever than you ever expected. Or like Montaigne's cat, playing with you when you thought you were playing with it. Or, less heartwarmingly, like a toy you're not playing with but trying to put together at midnight as a present for a child.
That toy kitchen is just what she wants. But its wild assortment of parts have to be fitted together exactly. What, half the screws are Phillips heads? Don't we have a Phillips-head screwdriver in this house?!
The Internet is no less exacting. Where is that cyberspace Phillips head?
It was so easy to get started. Just a call to Software Tool & Die, and I was connected to the World, my home on the Internet.
How to tap the wonders reported daily in the press? E-mail was simple, but what's this long access code beginning with ''http://''? I asked for a ''help'' program, and my plodding modem made it seem like wading through the Britannica. I tried old-fashioned phoning and was steered to some valuable on-line friends.
''Gopher'' and ''Lynx'' turned out to be like those pets that do more than you ask. ''Alex'' became an international literary guide. Even the White House computer answered my computer (limit, one reply a day). Now I'm in touch with ''Thomas'' (for Thomas Jefferson), thanks to a new Congress that is following the information superhighway heralded by Vice President Al Gore. And Thomas leads me far beyond Washington to resources around the globe. These services do the http://-ing for me, adding kindly mess ages such as ''please wait.''
I always wonder about asking a computer to look up something. It's not the same as going to library stacks or flipping through a card catalog and perhaps finding a prize.
But the Internet has its own serendipity. Browsing the cyberspace Commonplace Book, I happened on a quote from science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin about the effect of a good novel: ''we have changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before.''
Sometimes I have the same feeling about fresh encounters on the Internet. A line like ''listening to the air'' from a rock lyric has a new face in the context of a university's poetry listings. Now that Frederick Douglass is on the whole world's screen, I'm newly touched by the unassuming opening words in his slavery narrative, ''I was born in Tuckahoe.''
There's still nothing like a book, Emily whispers as I exit the World. No electronic ''bookmark'' (offered by Lynx) will replace my dog-ears on her pages. And I'll keep reading print on paper, agreeing with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to John Adams, ''I cannot live without books.''
But I'll also slip away now and then to play with his Internet offspring, Thomas.