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A reading rainbow with new colours

January 10, 2010

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, which can be summed up as follows:

  1. a 2008 article in the Atlantic by Nicholas Carr discussed how more and more people are having difficulty reading long pieces of text, and how the internet might be rewiring our brains – and what the implications might be
  2. I’ve had the same experience since the mid-90’s, when I started using the net (though at the time, I thought it might be related to seizures that I had been having – it was a bit startling to learn that many others have been having the same experience)
  3. I just bought a new Kindle, that arrived two days ago

There was actually a big gap between points 2 and 3; as I mentioned, I read lots of bits and scraps off the web, but my reading of actual books had dropped off dramatically. Usually, I read one fiction and one non-fiction book at the same time, with maybe some short stories as well. But some weeks I didn’t read at all, and it was taking me more than a year to finish some books. More from Nick Carr’s article:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.

So earlier in 2009, I decided to experiment; rather than fight the Googlefication of my brain, I thought I would give into it and try to read a whole bunch of books at once. As of last week, I was reading eight books (The Savage Detectives, Slaughterhouse-Five, Don Quixote, The Ingenuity Gap, Postwar, Death from the Skies!, Walden, The Republic).

I’m re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five but the others are all new. I finished The Ingenuity Gap last week; I’ve also put down The Republic for now, as it appears that there are much better translations than the one I have on hand. It’s slow going, of course, but I’ve managed to finished a few books in the past six months (most recently To The Lighthouse, The Soul of Baseball, I Am America And So Can You, and Hocus Pocus).

What’s more, I’m reading about two hours every day now; the amount that I’m actually reading is vastly greater now than it was a year ago. The ability to read a couple of pages from 4-5 different books each night is vastly more appealing now than picking up the same two books over and over. Whether or not I’m retaining anything is a whole other question. I don’t know; I keep a notepad handy, and write down lots of notes just in case.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”

Enter the Kindle, which will possibly take this experience to another level (the Kindle just arrived in Canada for the first time, so bear with me if I sound like I just bought the Hottest New Toy). I’ve made a few quickie purchases since it arrived in the mail two days ago (the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, poems of William Blake, Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki and a digitized Works of Thoreau. They’re all cheap and in the public domain, of course; but I really do hope to read more contemporary works, which I’ve rarely done in the past).

First impressions of the gadget are positive: it’s sleek, comfortable, and easy to learn. The store had a few surprises: apparently some publishers aren’t too thrilled with the Kindle, as there are no works by William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon and others available. As I’ve mentioned, the public domain stuff is plentiful and cheap; you can buy the complete works of Dickens for about five bucks (or less). But readability is a serious issue, and I’ve quickly learned that downloading the samples and comparing them is a must.

(I should also note that now that I’ve made an investment in the Future Of Reading, my little Kindle could be in danger of getting blown into the past by all sorts of tablets with colour and touchscreens and so on. The Apple tablet has already reached mythic status, and at last week’s CES there seemed to be dozens of other companies coming out of the woodwork with rival ereaders/tablets/doohickeys. Whatever; so long as the Kindle works and the Amazon store works (and adds Saul Bellow at some point), I think it will be OK for now (and who the hell needs COLOUR to read Henry David Thoreau anyways?)

(Dr. Seuss, on the other hand… yeah, OK, I admit I will need a tablet to get my Dr. Seuss fix.)

So now I am skipping around about ten different works, both dead tree and Kindle versions, hoping that I can get as much out of them as I would if I just read one book from start to finish. And I hope that I am still reading for the joy of it, rather than just trying to set some new benchmark for how many books I can read at once.

Sitting down and reading a couple of pages here or there as often as possible has become a bit of an addiction, so much so that I haven’t been watching few movies lately, as sitting for 2-3 hours and watching something from beginning to end seems more and more like a chore. I’m going to have to discipline my brain somehow to get back into that habit, as I can’t imagine not watching movies, nor can I imagine watching one scene of a movie and then moving on to next one (although this website provides an addictive experience that is eerily similar).

And then, I’ve never watched a movie on an iPhone or other mobile device, and can’t imagine doing so – even on a tablet. Which I fear is part of the reason I’ve hardly been watching them at all.

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence.

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