Not to worry. This is not another post from a frustrated book-writer, trying to suss out the market. Although you never know. That might be on the way, too.
No, this post has germinating for a while, ever since I read Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic Monthly earlier this summer. Andrew Sullivan played off Carr’s article in a piece called “Google is giving us pond-skater minds,” which I think is a perfect title except for (as in the former) the emphasis on Google. I guess it’s catchy and brief, but the issue is the Internet, period.
Both pieces resonate with my own experience. For the first time in a long time I agree with Andrew one hundred percent. More:
However, the way in which I now think and write has subtly – or not so subtly – altered. I process information far more rapidly and seem able to absorb multiple sources of information simultaneously in ways that would have shocked my teenage self.
In researching a topic, or just browsing through the blogosphere, the mind leaps and jumps and vaults from one source to another. The mental multitasking – a factoid here, a YouTube there, a link over there, an e-mail, an instant message, a new PDF – is both mind-boggling when you look at it from a distance and yet perfectly natural when you’re in mid-blog.
When it comes to sitting down and actually reading a multiple-page print-out, or even, God help us, a book, however, my mind seizes for a moment. After a paragraph, I’m ready for a new link. But the prose in front of my nose stretches on.
I get antsy. I skim the footnotes for the quick info high that I’m used to. No good. I scan the acknowledgments, hoping for a name I recognise. I start again.
I started noticing this a couple of years ago in myself. The exact same nervous, hungry habit of reading. For a time I excused it as nothing more than an extension of my lifelong Library Rat habits, those that came into play with great force in the writing of my MA thesis, an experience that convinced me I could never write a doctoral dissertation. Repeatedly faced with a library bursting with life -for that it is what is essentially about – life – who can focus on one little portion of it? One footnote in one book leads to another, and then another…there is always more out there.
An awareness multiplied exponentially by the most enormous library the world has ever seen, and you don’t even have to roam the stacks to find it – although roaming the stacks offers undeniable, irreplacable pleasures of its own. Sullivan’s description of it as a “high” is pretty perfect. And when you have a multitude of deep interests – for me, ranging from religion of all types to politics to child-related issues to life issues to literature to Italy to, depending on what’s going on in your life or the life of others, a certain travel destination, buying a house, selling a house, teaching English as a foreign language, the weather, IB programs, a good recipe for peach cobbler…the day can be an endless round of popping up and down from the computer, always thinking, “Oh, I need to look this up” or “I wonder what…” even as you are in the middle of the last thing you needed to look up.
There are two fundamental issues, it seems to me: the activity of reading, processing information, and so on, as well as the resultant, more general mental and intellectual state. They’re related, but subtly different. I’ve addressed the latter by frequently saying that thanks to the Internet I think I know a lot more than I used to but I’m certainly not any wiser. Addicted to information, tempted by easy access, it’s so hard to step back and just…think about what I’ve learned.
The other point that both writers raise is that of concentration when faced with an actual lengthy piece of prose in print. I’ve found this to be true to an extent, but more when I’m reading magazines than books. Something about my brain is still be steadied by a book. What I do find – and this amuses me – is that when I’m researching in real, live books, I am extremely annoyed that there is no “find” button on my book. Oh, sure there’s an index, but it’s just not the same. (E-books have never, ever been a temptation, though.)
Over the past year, though, I’ve gone a little bit retro in some aspects of my reading. I’ve never stopped reading books, but I did, for a while, really let my magazine reading slow down. It seemed that most of the stuff I wanted to read – even in longer-form publications like the New Yorker – eventually made its way online.
But then. I started missing some rituals. That ritual of sitting on the back porch or, in winter, on the couch after everyone had gone to bed, with a fresh, unread New Republic or New Yorker or Atlantic or First Things, taking a sip of something – Diet Coke? tea? wine? – cracking it open, and…reading. In all cases, starting from the back of the book, of course, perhaps trying to discipline myself to save the Anthony Lane or James Wood or a piece with which I know I will violently disagree (the last of which affords its own, different sort of pleasure), but usually failing.
And so, I got back to it. Partly because Michael used a demand from one of the airlines to use up frequent flier miles be getting several subscriptions, so they just started falling through the slot. A sign? But partly because even though I could read much of the very same thing online, it simply wasn’t the same. Reading a long article online is an activity frought with those pond-skating habits, while planted in my chair, cool, smooth pages folded back, resting on my lap, a house around me silent but for a clanking dryer or cicadas shrieking in the trees, a space opens up, unthreatened by the lure of more information out there, unmoved by that peculiar kind of lust, so that somewhere, a space into which perhaps, a small bit of wisdom has room to fall, sprout and even take root.