According to a recent S. F. Chronicle article by journalist Nicholas Carr (6/20/10), electronic media are eroding our ability to comprehend the written word. Unlike printed material, text on a screen must compete with all the other visual stimuli that pop up on our computers. Because of this, Carr argues, screen technologies are removing us from “the profound intellectual engagement of deep reading.”
I’m all for thoughtful inquiry into how screen reading might affect our comprehension and analytical capabilities. But I find Carr’s ideas silly. What is “deep” reading? Is it the one right way to read? If I don’t read that way, am I automatically excluded from the Society of Profound Thinkers and Other Morally Superior People?
How would Carr recommend that I handle my inability to sit still and do only one thing for hours on end? Clearly I’m committing a crime against literacy when I alternate among various reading and writing tasks so as not to feel overwhelmed by any one of them.
Case in point: as I’m tinkering with this essay, I’m also reading a 6/28/10 New York Times piece in which author John Tierney argues that mind-wandering has a kind of “incubation effect” on the imaginative process. Apparently, people whose minds wander score higher on creativity tests than those with a longer attention span. I like this guy already.
Tierney explains that people typically notice up to three episodes of mind-wandering per half-hour of reading a printed novel. And when researchers interrupted readers to ask whether they were thinking about their book at a particular moment, subjects reported about ten percent of the time that their thoughts were elsewhere.
So much for Carr’s assertion that “a book provides a shield against distraction, allowing us to focus our entire attention on an author’s narrative or argument.”
Of course our reading patterns are changing as screen technologies evolve. But preachy statements like “the original genius of the book, as a technology, was its profound lack of excitement” won’t stem the tide. Nor does this hand-wringing seem entirely honest. Does Carr really believe it’s a bad thing that we can now click on a link to background information while reading a newspaper article online?
Carr’s panic is not universally shared in the literary world. The prestigious online magazine Narrative recently put out a call for submissions for a new genre that it created, the iPoem. Encouraging “the poet’s awareness of how the new media affect, for instance, the line in poetry,” Narrative is actively seeking to publish poems that fit within no more than two screens on the iPhone.
As for good books, they’re still a thrill like no other—isn’t this the point? Books still enable many people to share in a common experience, each coming away with his or her own unique set of responses—and something to discuss.
Books were not designed as a tool for legislating properly “deep” thinking. They certainly shouldn’t be used to justify the smug condemnation of other ways of learning.
Published in The Piedmont Post, July 7, 2010