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Joining the reading revolution

January 9, 2010

A few months ago, the Atlantic magazine had a cover story with the provocative title, Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, by Nicholas Carr. From the second paragraph:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.

Actually, it was the Summer 2008 issue, which is more than a few months ago; I can’t even say it was last year. Continuing on:

Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

That paragraph struck home, because I’ve feeling like that since the mid-90’s – since before Google even existed. For a long time I thought I was just imagining it – when I was 19 years old, I started having seizures without warning, and had four grand mal seizures in an 18-month span before I started on the medication that I still take daily.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances — literary types, most of them — many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

I read a lot in both grade school and high school; I used to knock off 400-page novels without too much problem. Now, they were becoming a slow chore. For a long time I just assumed that it was other factors – normal aging process, reading more challenging books as I started university, or just too much worrying about nothing – that were at play, because the alternative, that the seizures had adversely affected my brain, was not cool.

Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?”

Looking back, sometime between the first seizure and the last one, I started surfing the web – you know, dialup, Netscape, Magellan, the International Lyrics Server, using Pine to submit class assignments (and Pico to create them!) – all that good stuff.

His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

At the time I read this article, I was doing most of my reading on the internet; and picking up books only 2-3 times a week. I think I started The Tin Drum sometime in 2006, and didn’t finish until 2008, though I did enjoy it; just too often I didn’t feel like picking up the book (I even bought a brand new copy, because the cover of the old used copy was bugging me).

Also, in the summer of 2008 – about the time I read this article – I started using Google Reader. I am now subscribed to dozens of blogs, most of which I don’t read – I skim though a few dozen posts daily, occasionally read the short and interesting ones and save the longer ones for later (much later, as it turns out – I have a giant backlog of saved posts to get through).

Speaking of which, this post has already gotten too long – I will skip ahead 18 months to yesterday, when my new Kindle arrived, my first e-reader. It’s the newest step in an attempt to change my reading habits over the past six months – I will discuss those, and my first impressions of my new gadget, in the next post.

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