Notes - The Book, The Internet, Literature

First heard of the "Is Google Making Us Stupid/Killing Literature" foomfahrah via this Mark Hurst post and this follow-up. Kevin Kelly was quite a player in the debate also, here and here, and all the above links will let you read all sides to your heart's desire. Clay Shirky's post questioning the "cult of literature" really popped the cork. Both Kelly and Hurst agreed with Jeremy Hatch's post that it's not the medium that disturbs your reading focus so much as your inability to discipline your reading habits, whether online or off. I wish I had the rhetorical power and skill (and time) to write a blessay on the subject, but here are the rough notes I made today as I criss-crossed cyberspace reading, skimming, and frowning. They add different vegetables to an already spicy gumbo.

  • Hatch and Kelly (and others) have no problem with reading on a computer screen. Hurst and Kelly both highlight this quote from Hatch's post: "...your ability to concentrate on a long text is not a function of the medium of delivery, but a function of your personal discipline and your aims in reading."I would say that that is probably true for Hatch, but not so true for me. I've had surgeries on both eyes for detached retinas and cataracts (and follow-up laser treatments to burn off lens plaque); reading online for long periods tires my eyes in a way reading paper-based materials do not. Perhaps this is because the light is being pushed to my eyes via my 20" Trinitron monitor rather than the light being reflected off the page; I don't know. My cataract doctor also urged me and every computer user I know to use wetting drops or lubricant eye drops at least hourly. He said he's observed computer and laptop users not blinking their eyes for nearly a minute, and this aggravates dryness and irritation of the eyeball.Kelly asked for some scientific studies of how reading online is materially or measurably different from reading books. In addition to scans of brain activity, why not also check eye movements, eye health, posture, etc.?
  • Better equipment may also help. I did read a book or two on my Clie in years past and it was OK, but it's not an experience I sought out very much. (Also, reading on my Clie isn't the event that an evening spent reading a book is, for me.) My 13" MacBook has a great screen for reading, but most PDFs I get don't fit comfortably on that screen, so I often wind up changing zoom levels and scrolling around a lot. On my PC, running the monitor means running my big desktop PC with the loud fan, which is annoying. Also, the hummmm of the equipment impels me to do something--don't just read! My apparatus for online reading isn't as transparent as the typical book apparatus I'm used it. I do often print out the things I want to read and take them with me.
  • Kelly, I think, points out the arguments of how word processors changed writing styles. Other commentators pointed out how every new technology changed how we created or consumed stories or (ugh) content. James Burke's series "The Day The Universe Changed" heavily makes the point that writing altered people's memories; it certainly had implications for the creation and performance of epic poems. I think it's safe to assume that the online experience will change reading habits, but we don't know how.
  • I was fascinated by Hatch's post where he said he really hasn't known life without computers around. I'm part of the generation that bridged the computing divide; I didn't use computers for full-time work until 1989, when I started using a Mac II for writing and laying out a newsletter. And the Internet (in the form of Compuserve) and the Web weren't part of my life till about 5 years afterward. Before that, yep, it was books, typewriters, and lots of scratch paper.
  • If people are having trouble reading books because they're reading online too much, it may be as Hatch says, more a matter of discipline or habit. But we're talking experienced readers and computer users here. It may be that the computer offers wonderful distractions. But it may be a generational thing, where us older readers are comforted by the handrails a book offers: pagination, tactile response, heft, the ability to open a book into 3 places at one time to check the TOC, endnotes, and a diagram. I find I miss the handrails when reading online: I have to use a little more cognitive juice to gauge how far I've come and how far I have to go in a book (though the scroll bar suffices), I have to think about how to set a bookmark if I want to go back and check something I've read before, I have to think about how to implement marginalia. I know all of these can be done online, but I have to think about how to do it; these tasks feel more "natural" (that is to say, "practiced" and "learned" and "I already know how to do it") with a book in hand.
  • I remember a long-ago question to Marilyn vos Savant. A guy noticed he was having trouble concentrating. What was the one best thing he could do to regain his focus? Her answer: read a novel.
  • "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Were we stupid before? Or are we letting ourselves get lazy? Is that the same thing?
  • I'll probably change this answer after reading Carr's article, but: I think the simple answer would be to just shut the damn computer off and stop the input for a while.
  • How much of our reading mechanisms are "natural"--that is to say, innate, inborn? Our brain's hardware hasn't really changed all that much for the last several thousands of years. How important is training and association, and simply what we're most comfortable with? Could we refer to these latter components as the "software" running on our wonderful hardware?
  • Burke said in his series that, with a book, you could hold a man's mind in your hand, argue with him, learn from him--without having to go and see him. But books (and the publishing industry that grew up around them) eventually grew to serve as mediators and quality gates for centuries, becoming another effective barrier. If text (like music) is now flowing at us in a stream, it means that we're now again accepting unmediated information. Lots of that information may be worthless, but other mediators will arise (like the NY Times, Slate, Salon, Yahoo, and others), readers will choose which they prefer to use to sample the stream's myriad contents, and the mediation will continue, but in new forms.
  • I suppose one test you could do to check the efficacy of online vs book reading would be to have book-reader James Wood and bits-reader Jeremy Hatch read the same book in their preferred formats and see how the discussion proceeds. Does the medium change what they notice or what they talk about? Methinks that the conversation we'd overhear (and I'd love to overhear it) would be two excellent readers discussing what impressed them about the book, the (ugh) content. Instead of references to "that scene on page 12" we might instead hear "that scene where she cuts the watermelon", but that's not a big deal.
  • I do like Kelly's point about redefining what a book is, what are its boundaries. "Book" to me means a specific physical object. We need a new name, a new metaphor, a new image.
  • But truthfully, and I think even the digital partisans would agree, some subjects just work better in a book or folio form. Large-format art books, for example. I have a great big book of illuminated journals and letters that I adore turning the pages of, and my Absolute Watchmen and Alice in Sunderland volumes are just exquisite pleasures to read, browse, linger over, and they're easy on my poor eyes. I get great joy from appreciating the craft of the book, its art. There's also something about the possession of a beautiful physical object I can hold in my hands that I don't feel with digital objects.
  • Is the worry that we're becoming illiterate or aliterate? People may choose not to read because there are other things they're rather be doing. I'd say the latter is more precisely the issue some worry about. But haven't there always been fewer literate educated people in the world, than the reverse? (How many copies of a book do you need to sell to get on the NY Times Bestseller List? Compare that to the opening weekend attendance of the worst summer movie in the world. Which is larger? By what magnitude? There's no going back.)
  • Reminds me of Gore Vidal's comment that, at the dawn of civilization, song and poetry were at the center of the culture. Then books occupied the center, and pushed poetry out to the edges. Then movies and radio occupied the center, pushed books and novels to the edges, pushing poetry even further out. Then television rose in the center, and so on and so on. While none of these earlier artforms have died out, they aren't at the center and their enthusiasts talk to each other more than they talk to the mass audience.
  • I was struck by some commentators' replies that they loved their PDAs or iPhones to read books while standing in line, making use of downtime, etc. (A friend at work calls reading while on the toilet "parallel processing.") Not to be a prig, but -- is that really the best use of your time? Wouldn't your brain benefit from no input AT ALL for just a few minutes? When I'm in line at the grocery, I'll say a mantra to just pass the time and put me in a good mood. I'd hate to start reading something, get lost in it, and then have to hurriedly close it to push my cart forward. When I start reading, I want to stay in that world for a while. When I'm not reading, I want to stay in this world and be aware of what's around me or just mull things over.
  • Kelly mentioned audiobooks as a medium that no one was talking about. I listen to mine in the car, so only ever hear them in snippets; it makes for a somewhat disjointed experience. In Steve Martin's memoir that I got through Audible.com, I lost the photos that appeared in the book but I got banjo interludes between chapters and him actually singing some of his songs. So that was a good trade-off.
  • Genre became an issue with Shirky's essay and Birkerts, too. Fiction vs non-fiction seemed to be the issue. Would the discussion change if we were talking about poetry rather than prose? Could you read a few lines of Shakespeare or Keats or the Iliad while waiting in the grocery line, and then could you say you really read it? And what do I mean by "really reading it"? Does the context of where and how you're reading affect how you read a specific genre? (Obligatory mention of Poetry Daily, which I do visit daily.)
  • I'm surprised Wendell Berry hasn't weighed in by now (but then, someone would have to print out all the essays and send them to him). Wendell would add some more fun to the discussion.

Update: Talk about serendipity. Listened to a BBC Radio 3 discussion on the Future of the Book. In addition to talking about how a book, being self-contained, excludes other distractions, they mentioned the signaling aspects of book-readers, particularly subway or tube readers. Their choice of book signals to the other riders what kind of person they are; a "One Hundred Years of Solitude" reader might be advertising something about themselves quite different from a "Da Vinci Code" reader. One presumes a Kindle or iPhone reader are also advertising something about themselves to the people around them.

Update: "The Amazon Kindle I passed around the room was so forgettable that no one mentioned it during the next 90 minutes."