I know I’ve touched upon this subject before, but I just have to go for it again. It’s the question of whether we are losing the will and ability to read. No, I’m not questioning whether you can recite your ABC’s or if you can actually read the words I’m writing here, but are we losing the intellectual stamina to read anything longer than an email and a text message?
I first started thinking about this a few years ago, after a conversation over lunch with my publisher, during which we discussed the future of books. It transpired that illustrated books for adults were considered to be a “next big thing.” As the population ages, it will need those pictures to get them through a book. I thought back to some writing I’d done a few years ago, for a magazine aimed at the over-50 market, and I was told to keep my articles to about 500-600 words, because as people aged they didn’t want to read more than that at any one time. At that point, the big 5-0 was looming out there for me, so I just thought, “Oh, no, that won’t happen to me ....”
Then yesterday, at Scottsdale airport (I'd been at our beloved Poisoned Pen bookstore), I picked up the latest Atlantic Monthly to read on the ‘plane, and the lead article had me thinking about the question of literary endurance all over again. The title: Is Google Making Us Stoopid. It’s a fair question, and the essay’s author, Nicholas Carr, asks it very well, describing the way he’s been thinking about his own thinking. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.” He goes on to describe how his mind wanders, how he is distracted, and how deep reading has become a struggle. Hmmmm. I confess, I have had my moments. Re-reading Middlemarch doesn’t seem to be quite the idea it was a year ago.
The article goes on to describe a phenomenon we have come to know and understand - that our minds are being trained by the internet to dip into this, dip into that. To research a point, I no longer have to read a book, or even a well-chosen chapter, I just Google, and I’m there. Carr describes, “foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines, and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link.” And it turns out, at University College London they've been conducting research into computer logs at the British Library and a UK-based educational consortium, and they found that people using the site exhibited a “form of skimming activity.” And so it went on. The reader’s life is no longer as we knew it.
The thing that interests me in all this, is how much people – from those who write articles such as this one in The Atlantic Monthly, to those discussing the subject – use the words “information” and “wisdom” interchangeably. And they are not the same thing. To me, the amassing of information is akin to our current obsession with “stuff.” The amount of stuff we have these days, stuff that we deem absolutely necessary to our quality of life, is almost obscene. And if we were asked to take just a few things because the house was about to burn down (or foreclosed!), we’d soon find out how much useless stuff we’ve managed to wrap around ourselves and what we truly care for and need. Information is like that. Knowledge, however, is akin to spun silk. Information is simply a batch of facts. It's "clothes" not couture. Knowledge has to do with every cell of the body, and it is a pre-requisite for wisdom, thus is it all but unachievable - as the truly wise would gladly tell us if we did but listen. Knowledge is a path. Information a destination for a given purpose. Knowledge is perennial. Information flowers once.
I'm not a Luddite, but I would love to know where all this "progress" is going. I see more books being published than ever before, I see kids happily reading a 700-page Harry Potter book, and at the same time, I was told by a teacher a couple of years ago, that increasingly kids are having trouble with books because they don’t know how to imagine, because it’s being done for them with the electronic imagery they’ve been brought up with. Ah, Electrickery.
And before I leave you (having written over 700 words, I’ve pushed the envelope enough already), I wonder if you all saw the cover of last week’s New Yorker. I cut it out and pasted it on the refridgerator. It was, I think, one of the saddest covers ever. It depicted a bookstore owner unlocking the door to his shop, while at the same time his neighbor is receiving a box of books from Amazon.
Ah, brave, brave new world.
Have a lovely weekend. Do yourself a favor, read a good long book. Middlemarch, anyone? Crime and Punishment? 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke?