Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reading, Writing, and Googling

Well, it's 4:38 AM, and our power just came back on about a half-hour ago...we had another big storm last night and - as usual - our electricity went out. It was out longer than usual this time, though...about eight hours. Good thing we keep lots of candles around the house...perhaps Dominion Virginia Power ought to give each household a box of them once a year or so.

My offer in yesterday's post of handwritten personal letters to the first five people who sent me their address has had four takers so far. Andrea's letter is in progress (partly written last night and this morning by candlelight); Amanda's, Mike's, and John's will follow as my brain and wrist can handle them. There's still one more letter opportunity for another reader...if you would like to have the old-time, exciting experience of actually getting a real, handwritten snail mail letter that doesn't ask for money, send your mailing address to me at "bilbo_the_blogger - at symbol -," and I'll add you to the list. Once again, the deal is this: I'll write you a letter, and you promise to write back once you receive it. Think of it as Bilbo's effort to bring back the lost art of personal correspondence.

Yesterday, I started my post with a look at the marvelous book The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Today, I'd like to point you to a related article in this month's issue of The Atlantic titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This article focuses on the negative effect of Google in particular and the Internet in general in diminishing our ability and willingness to read full-length books and longer essays, noting that "...the more (people) use the web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing." For my part, I haven't noticed this happening - I still enjoy reading full-length articles and books as much as ever. However, I have noticed that I'm much more likely to stop reading something if it doesn't hold my interest. I don't know if the Internet is to blame, or if I'm just exercising my curmudgeonly right to jettison stuff that isn't worth my time to read.

Here is a particularly interesting quote from the article: "'We are not only what we read,' says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. 'We are how we read.' Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged."

When we read things online, we're often distracted by pop-up ads, flashing comments in the margins, and other elements of what Edward Tufte would probably call chartjunk. We don't focus the way we do over the printed page. And we're tied to a screen that depends on a battery that can die or a cable that keeps us within a certain radius of an outlet. Last night and early this morning while the power was out, I was able to light candles and keep reading while my otherwise marvelous iMac was reduced to a high-tech paperweight.

Take the time to read the Atlantic if you must, but it's better on the printed page. If you are at all interested in reading and thinking, and the impact of the Internet on both, it's very much worth your time.

And speaking of time, it's now time for me to take Punky for her morning constitutional, pack my lunch, and head to the office to slay more paper dragons.

Have a good day. Read more. Write more.

More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Hmmm....I can see the point that the article makes but I can't really put myself in that position. I still like reading (the thicker the book the better) as long as I have some uninterrupted time.

For my lifestyle now, the quick Googling of need-to-know facts is something that I really need.

I do agree that perhaps the children of today are at risk of the negative effects of the Internet. Yet another point to jot down on my list of things to teach Aaron.

John said...

I still like to read books and magazines as well as online articles. I have The Bible and several e-books on my laptop and have found that they are convenient as I can take a lot of books with me without carrying a lot of books.

On the other hand, I frequently do quite a bit of reading in a room that doesn't have a convenient place to set a laptop and where the lap is a little awkward.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Some excellent points in that post.

Mike said...

I would rather read an article in a magazine than read it on line. But I'm glad when I can find that same article on line if I want to send it to somebody or post it.