Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Reader Reclaims the World Between the Covers

I used to be a reader. When I was a kid, I happily spent 40 minutes on the school bus every morning reading a book. I enjoyed that feeling of entering a different world, of following where the author led me. As I recently tried to encourage this same love of books in my kids, I realized with some shock that I wasn't reading books anymore.

Don't get me wrong: I read all the time. I spend all kinds of time on the internet. But surfing involves a different kind of reading--and maybe a different kind of thinking, too. Last summer, Nicholas Carr talked about this in The Atlantic when he asked, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Formerly "voracious" readers provided their experiences of being unable to finish books (at least I'm not alone!). This evidence is supported by research in the UK which suggests that people are using a "power browsing" technique for gathering information online rather than reading in detail. Carr's piece describes the ways that technology has changed not only the way we live, but the way we think about things and about ourselves. From the invention of the clock through the development of industrial and manufacturing efficiencies, these changes have shaped us: we place a high value on information and the immediacy and sheer volume of it has changed how we process it. The internet has become part of our intellectual "evolution".

It's interesting to think about who we're going to be five or ten years from now if we're having a hard time reading books now. Of course technology will accommodate this. It already has. I was just reading about hybrid books, which are books with video and web components. Judith Curr, the publisher of Atria Books, says, "You can't just be linear anymore with your text." A reviewer on Amazon.com named Fred L. Gronvall said of the videos, "It really makes a story more real if you know what the characters look like." I don't remember having a problem with that when I used to read books; in fact, I preferred to read a book before seeing the movie precisely because I could imagine the characters and settings myself. Seeing a movie first was like having the work done for you. It removed what Carr calls the "intellectual vibrations" in the brain caused by reading books. "In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book," Carr said, "...we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas." In other words, "deep" reading makes us think.

Those who create the images that accompany the words in "vooks" (or replace them entirely in movies or Youtube videos) are moved by the written word and its "intellectual vibrations". They read a book like Lord of the Rings, for example, and see a whole world that they're inspired to create on screen. What will happen if the next generation of directors and other storytellers no longer read books, and spend childhoods having their stories "spoon fed" to them? What new medium or process will replace these "intellectual vibrations" that have inspired us for centuries?

The staccato nature of our Twitter communications, cryptic length of status updates, and brief summaries of news items that we read on our daily "feeds" are accommodating our appetites for information, and lots of it, but have we sacrificed our ability to think deeply about issues? The sound bite in politics may not be popular just because it's palatable: perhaps it's the only size of information we are able to chew and digest. By filling us up with many tiny, constant meals, new media seems to have rendered us incapable of eating anything larger or meatier. Is this something to be excited about? Are we intrigued? Or alarmed? Will the problems we face as time goes on decrease in complexity to accommodate our thinking style? Will we perceive them as simpler? Or will our problem-solving necessarily change?

When I realized how few books I was reading, I made a book list and started to tackle it. Not on a Kindle or anything else with batteries or screens; not books on tape, not the movie version or Cliffsnotes. These all have their place, but to reclaim some of those "quiet spaces," I'm using my eyes and brain, a library card, and time. It's only been a few months and my thinking already feels more linear. My distractibility has decreased, my focus has improved. I still enjoy my feeds, tweets, and status updates, but I make sure to balance these with the simple pleasures of the world between two covers.

What do you think? Have you embraced new technology completely, or do you straddle the old and new as I do? Do you still read books? Are you conflicted about the role that new media plays in your life? Please share your thoughts!

2 comments:

  1. Love this post! I still read books, but lately find myself drawn to listening to books on CD. I think we are in for a world of hurt if books go the way of cassettes and walkmans. In depth, logical thinking is already a rare skill.

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  2. Thanks, Joan! I know, I definitely listen to books on CD, too. Listening in the car, or while I'm working, is a great way to "multitask". But I am sad about losing books. Tristan brought home a book from the school library the other day, and when I opened it, the smell of it took me back 30 years! It wasn't a bad smell, just the library smell I associated with all of those happy book-filled days at Williams-Cone School! The whole sensory experience of books is something I miss when I do all of my reading online (or have it read to me).

    Thanks so much for commenting!

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