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Belly of the Whale: Jet-Skiing Over Books

A Blogumn By Howard Leder

The notes & thoughts of a traveller waiting to be spit back up on dryland

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been under the spell of an article I read in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” which put the fear of God into me when it comes to reading.

Now, when I say “reading,” I’m talking about good old-fashioned, sitting with a book for hours reading, which I’ve noticed has become more & more difficult for me over the last couple of years.  Apparently I’m not alone.  The writer of the article–Nicholas Carr–compares himself to the computer HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” who forlornly moans, “Dave, my mind is going,” as the astronaut pulls his brain offline, piece by piece.

Carr feels that in the internet age, our ability to read is paradoxically diminished by the web.  A paradox since the Web is of course rich in word. But the Internet’s words are constantly pushing you towards something else, both through the hyperlink as well as the database-like structure of the internet.  It encourages a restless, wandering kind of reading.  Carr says:

Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.

In my own life, I had experienced the same shift.  “I can’t finish a book anymore,” I’d complain to people who I knew to be readers. At first I assumed it was just my own life: getting older, the demands of work taking over, concentration maxed out on other concerns (like who lost on “Project Runway” this week).  Maybe reading had lost it’s usefulness.

But Carr feelings about how the web influences not just the contents of our minds, but the very way in which our minds work, clicked for me. He quotes researcher Maryanne Wolf, who says, “We are not only what we read.  We are how we read.”

Our brains, in other words, take on the very quality of the way in which we gather information.  Where before I might submerge myself in the deep, long-thought of a book, suddenly my mind was skittish, difficult to hold onto.  Concentration waned.  Given this dreary state of affairs, I was surprised I even had the mental capacity left to get through the entire Atlantic article.

In my life, I fully embrace the web, use & refer & defer to it constantly.  I accept that the world & the tools we use to master it are changing.  I’m just not sure I want to be the change myself. The book is a fundamental part of who I am, the hours spent whirling around behind its pages, just as say video & computer games are to my brother.  I can feel the spell & lure of a digitally modified existence, but feel like something has gone missing, some intrinsic part of myself nurtured through all those years of reading.

So I set out on a new course, which I’ll tell you about next time….