Friday, August 15, 2008

In the Land of the Blind ...

Everyone seems to be talking about Nicholas Carr's article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stoopid? The gist is that Google is really the scapegoat or synecdoche for the Internet as a whole, and that the style of reading it encourages, one of short blurbs and rapid context changes, is robbing us of our ability to read deeply on any subject. Carr cites some anecdotal evidence from his own and others' experience, and waltzes around his many caveats about the benefits of information appliances, but on the whole, bemoans his own loss of ability to concentrate on longer writing. (He neglects to consider the possible effects of aging.)

Many other bloggers have taken up the challenge either to defend or to attack Carr's position. There's been plenty of lively discussion around this, and many interesting points made on both sides.

But I take a totally different tack. I say "Hooray!" I'm finally in vogue. I've always had trouble reading long articles and books. My attention has always been a fleeting thing at best. Most non-fiction books seem to me to be attempts to commercialize on a single idea or, at best, a very few ideas. Once you grasp the idea, the rest of the book is just filler to make it appear to be worth $16.95.

Moreover, I find reading someone else's writing is like having to step in their footprints in the snow. Language is a vehicle for thought, so following someone else's writing means riding in the back seat while the writer drives. If I want to try going off on a side road, I don't have that option. I can only experience the trip exactly as the tour guide wants it. That's ok for a short trip, but for a really lengthy exploration, I want to have some freedom to linger here and there, or take side trips on my own.

Now, of course, reading can spur the imagination, and inspire new and creative thinking. But for me at least, that's always a digression. I have to catch myself and forcibly return to the text once in a while, or I'll never get through it. The best books take me the longest to read, because they trigger so many interesting diversions.

Well, that's about all I can bother to write on this, so I'll just say "Vive l'Internet!"


John Melithoniotes said...

Peter, you mentioned, "reading someone else's writing is like having to step in their footprints in the snow." Coincidentally, I've been reading Edmund Hillary's book about climbing Everest. That was a huge complicated mission that pushed those teams of people to the edge of their endurance. They climbed in stages, and established camps at each stage -- survival depended on having a camp available for famished, exhausted or freezing climbers. In each of these stages, it was because the climbers and Sherpas were able to step in the footprints of the team that established the trail that they were able to continue on, carrying food and equipment. That's how they reached the summit of Everest.

Peter Davis said...

John, it's certainly true that there are times when I want to be stepping in the author's footsteps. When trying to follow a complicated argument, or understand an algorithm, for instance, I'd want to follow as closely as possible. That's not always the case, though, and when I'm reading non-fiction, I often feel constrained by the path chosen by the particular author.