Was the printing press rotting their brains?

>> Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This past weekend, I'm sitting at dinner and skimming the Internet on the BlackBerry, waiting for my receipt, and I find that Salon has a provocatively-titled book review up: "Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain". The review is by Laura Miller and the reviewee is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a book-length expansion of an article Carr wrote for The Atlantic in 2008 titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in which Carr complains, basically, that Internet usage is rewiring our brains so that we can no longer focus on long articles and novels and such because we're easily distracted, prone to skim, and easily drawn into hyperlinks.

The funny part of this is what I did when I finished Miller's review: I went to Carr's article in The Atlantic. And I ended up skimming it.

It could be because I'm easily-distracted and can no longer concentrate because the Internet has, in fact, rotted my brain. Personally, I'm inclined to think that I just don't care enough, regardless of whether my brain has been rotted or not.

I mean here's the thing: consider these two paragraphs in Miller's review:

What the book doesn't do, unfortunately, is offer a sufficient rejoinder to Carr's most puckish critics, people like Clay Shirky, who responded to one Web addict's complaint that he "can't read War and Peace anymore" by proclaiming Tolstoy's epic novel to be "too long and not so interesting." While Shirky was no doubt playing the provocateur, he speaks for a very real anti-authoritarian cultural impulse to dismiss the judgments of experts, of history, even of a majority of other readers when they clash with the (often half-baked) evaluations of the individual. Shirky effectively asserted that, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, the emperor has no clothes -- at least not by the standards of today's multitasking digital natives. And why shouldn't their opinions be just as valid as anyone else's?

Carr sensibly replies that anyone who lacks the time or the cognitive "facility" to read a long novel like War and Peace will naturally find it too long and not so interesting. But in that case, how would we persuade such a person that it's worth learning how? For someone like Carr, the value of the intimate, intellectually nourishing practice of "literary reading" (and by extension, literary thinking) may be self-evident. Yet he's able to quote apparently intelligent and well-educated sources (including a Rhodes scholar who claims to never read books) who simply don't agree.

I'm inclined to think that's the money shot, right there. I haven't gotten around to War And Peace, so I can't say whether Clay Shirky is right that it's less-interesting than something that long ought to be. (I would parenthetically have to add that I did read the similarly exalted Moby Dick when I was in high school, years before the Internet had become ubiquitous, and that it, at least, is too long and not interesting and is one of those classics that's readily improved by a "good parts" abridgment, such as Ray Bradbury and John Huston's 1956 film version starring Gregory Peck.) But notice how the a priori assumption is that "literary reading" is inherently valuable or wonderful; Miller suggests that Carr ought to provide an answer, and adds:

Carr and I (and perhaps you) may know that reading War and Peace can be a far more profound experience than navigating through a galaxy of up-to-date blog postings, but to someone who can't or won't believe this, what else can we point to as a consequence of the withering of such a skill? What will we lose socially, politically, civilly, scientifically, psychologically, if a majority decides that the intellectual "shallows" are the proper habitat for the 21st-century mind? This needs to be spelled out because as Carr's critics have demonstrated, fewer and fewer people take it for granted. But with that caveat, The Shallows remains an essential, accessible dispatch about how we think now.

I'd contend that Carr doesn't have a rejoinder because there isn't one: the virtues of "literary reading" or relative vice of navigating through Internet metatext isn't something you can objectively show. Indeed, what Miller is apparently missing is that the skill she describes as "literary reading" is something of relatively recent vintage, the novel being something that wasn't even invented until the end of the 18th Century and that didn't come into its own until--and arguably reached its acme and peaked during--the 19th. Mind you, I'm not saying that "literary reading" doesn't have value, or that nothing will be lost if it becomes a lost art; more that I'm saying that Miller's evident belief that it's superior to anything else is really begging a question.

The thing is, "literary reading" is something that developed, really, during the 19th Century and was the result of a technological change, much as "Internet reading" or whatever you'd like to call it is something recent and a consequence of technology. As the 18th Century transitioned into the 19th, printing technology finally got to a point where you could mass-publish a popular work or even bind a lot of cheap paper into a magazine (be it a penny-dreadful or one of the literary salon magazines that became enormously popular in the Western Hemisphere during the middle years of the 19th Century), and so people transitioned from "reading" the way they used to read into the way we now imagine reading to be.

Let's jump back a bit, for just a moment.

Late last year, I finally read Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?, and one of the things that was fascinating in a "I guess I should've known that but I didn't give it enough thought" way was Jones' and his coauthors' description of how books were enjoyed in the 14th Century. Books were, of course, rare and made by hand, and not many people knew how to read and fewer still owned any; but "illiteracy" in the sense of the skill of deciphering characters on a page shouldn't be mistaken for "illiteracy" in the sense of "ignorant or unexposed." People loved books even if they didn't own any or couldn't have read them if they did.

We tend to think of "reading" as taking up a text and sitting down, perhaps by the fireside and perhaps with a beverage of choice--tea, or wine, or maybe something stronger or more elegant--a personal activity to be enjoyed in solitude. In Chaucer's time, however, "reading" was a social activity, something enjoyed by groups: a reading was the act of somebody, perhaps the author himself if you were so lucky, standing up before everybody, manuscript in hand, and reading aloud to the assembly. The idea of reading in private or silently would have seemed utterly bizarre and strange, but that's what reading became--in the 18th and 19th Centuries, as technology made books cheaper; and even then, one must note, "reading" in the sense it was known in the previous several centuries remained popular: 19th Century writers such as Dickens and Twain were not only known for reading their work aloud to their friends and colleagues, but invented the "book tours" that remain a part of publishing promotion in abbreviated, bowdlerized form today (the book tours of the 19th Century, I'm sure you know, were a bit more like rock concerts than the book tours of today, with popular writers scheduling readings in auditoriums and concert halls and reading selections for several hours an appearance).

It's all-too-easy to imagine some curmudgeon in a bygone era complaining, "Oh, technology is rotting our brains--I used to be able to sit and listen to somebody read a book for hours on end, but now I'm hardly able to listen to anything anymore, I find my attention wandering or I just want to grab the book from his hands and find a nice, secluded place where I can read quietly by myself; can we comprehend what will be lost when everybody wants to sit and read quietly by themselves instead of raptly engaging their ears and minds in focusing on the power and emotion of the human voice?" Things change--that doesn't necessarily mean for better or for worse, it sometimes merely means for different.

On a completely unrelated note: This week I'll be at a conference, so I have no idea how much blogging will get done or if any will. I'd like to try to post something, but I'm not going to promise anything much, and if nothing appears, fret not.

Of course, I've worried about this in the past, and found myself at a conference posting something on the hotel wi-fi every other hour. So maybe there will be tons of postings. Who knows? But I thought I'd make a note of it, anyway, just in case.


Leanright,  Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 8:09:00 PM EDT  

Google is there so we don't HAVE to think. Of course, there's a difference between a rotting brain and one in a state of atrophy.

Seth Monday, June 7, 2010 at 1:36:00 PM EDT  

If you're ever up for a project, I'd say give Moby-Dick another go. It's a terrible book to give high school age students, because most of it is the philosophical musing and puckish literary play of an adult man. The first 70 pages and the last 70 pages are a nice, actiony, plotty sort of book, but the middle three hundred are about what it's like to be on a five-year whaling voyage, complete with all the odd thoughts that flit through a sailor's head as he contemplates his work. That sounds dull, and to a teenager looking for a book about a vengeful clash between man and whale it is dull. But it's worth picking up again as an adult. Truly.

Also, weirdly enough, my wife has the "I want to pluck the book out of his hands!" reaction to things like lectures. She gets impatient and feels like she can get to the information faster by reading.

Eric Monday, June 7, 2010 at 5:14:00 PM EDT  

It's a thought, Seth, if I wasn't (pun intended?) so booked up with reading.

The thing I remember most annoying me at the time was Melville's rant about whales being fish. These days I'd maybe put it down to an unreliable narrator, but at the time it seemed too earnest to be an inside joke.

I'd also have to say that it was only a year-or-so later that I read the unexpurgated Les Miserables, which I adore (even included Hugo's epic re-writing of the history of France and sundry musings on anything and everything) and maybe after I read Dickens' Bleak House, which I distinctly remember enjoying although I remember little of it now after two decades.

But you may be right about Moby Dick nonetheless; while I enjoyed 19th Century novels in high school, it's possible Melville has treasures for an older reader that are buried to a less-experienced one.

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