Disclaimer: You are reading one of my early blog posts for a class and will have no context for what I’m about to say. For that, I apologize
Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr
Reading in a Digital Age, Sven Birkerts
No one can deny we’re living in an era of rapid technological advancement, and the blistering rate at which things are changing has (predictably) become the source of a lot of hand-wringing. I have no patience for it.
“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr says. “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose…Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.” “Nothing penetrates, or punctures,” echoes Birkerts. They complain about a change they notice in themselves and they interpret the change as negative. I have no problem with that–we all have things about ourselves we would like to change. My suggestion to people who are unhappy with their internal state of affairs is that they change whatever is bothering them about themselves. These men are upset that they, out of habit, no longer read analytically? Then they should make it a point to read analytically. I don’t like the insinuation that the entire march of progress should stop because the authors of this article feel as if they are developing adult onset A.D.D. and don’t feel like breaking bad habits.
I also don’t appreciate the implication that this issue is as clear-cut and universal as a mathematic equation (specifically, progress = bad). I, for instance, wish I was able to skim readings for key information. I never learned how to do that. For me, it’s analytic, hanging-on-every-word reading or nothing. Because of it, I never have any free time to read for enjoyment during semesters. In fact, I don’t really have any free time at all. I’m busy squinting at a sentence in Critique of Pure Reason for ten minutes, thinking, “My god, what does it all mean?” I see the ability to mentally multi-task and pick out valuable information as a skill, not a defective way of reading.
But what really bothers me is the terror of change and nostalgia for the safety of the status quo. “I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid,” quotes Carr at the end of his article, noting his feeling of kinship with the speaker. “I can feel it,” and, “I’m afraid” are not the words of a person being logical and rational. Birkerts put it this way: “Metaphor, the poet, imagination. The whole deeper part of the subject comes into view. What is, for me, behind this sputtering, is my longstanding conviction that imagination—not just the faculty, but what might be called the whole party of the imagination—is endangered.” That’s simply a supply/demand issue. I don’t think the demand for good storytelling is going away any time soon. And I know plenty of people who want the supply of works worthy of the title “literature” to keep flowing. Creativity and imagination isn’t being hindered by technology—it’s being set free. And if people still want the novel, it will stick around. If they don’t, it will be because we found a format we like better. Everyone needs to calm down. We are not going to hell in a handbasket. So, to these article writers, I would say this: Don’t bang your fist on the table and declare what kind of reading is best for everyone. And stop trying to freeze time in a moment of your choosing.