As long as I have known how, I have read books. One of my earliest memories involves me getting caught reading Aesop’s Fables in bed when I was supposed to be asleep (I had a very trusty little flashlight that allowed me to stay up many a night, unbeknownst to my parents). I would read during class, at meal times, in the car, everywhere. As I got older, I quit reading in class, but I still would take a book with me if I anticipated having any sort of downtime. In college I would read books when I should have been doing homework. But something shifted in grad school. There, reading was my job, even more so than it had been as an undergrad, and coupled with that “job” came the assisting and teaching of classes, which left me little time for “pleasure reading.” During summers, I rejoiced in not being forced to read, and I would read a lot of fluff, books I’m sure my professors would have been horrified to see me reading (although who knows, perhaps they too are closet fluff-readers).
Now, 4 weeks into the Summer Book Project of 2008, I have yet to complete a single book (although I’m about 100 pages shy of finishing the MacDonald fairy tales. In 4 weeks, I haven’t finished a single book! I’m deeply disturbed by the fact that I have all kinds of free time, and yet I am not reading. No wait, I am reading. Blogs, news headlines, the SparkPeople message boards, facebook posts. Just not any books. How have I come to this point? I have always considered myself a reader, but now that self-descriptive phrase appears to no longer apply.
I recently read an article in The Atlantic that might shed light on my current existential crisis. The author surmises that the Internet (namely, Google) has decreased people’s abilities to digest larger works of literature because everything people now “consume” in a literary sense is in the form of a blog or news headlines or facebook wall posts (my examples, not his entirely). In short, the Internet has changed the way we think, absorb, and process information. Our brains have become adept at skimming over information, looking for only what we came to find, and so we no longer linger over words as perhaps we were wont to do. I found this particular passage to be quite enlightening:
“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. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. 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.”
This describes my plight exactly! Reading is a struggle (even reading the whole article was difficult), and it almost physically pains me to write out that little confession, but there it is. And it’s not as though this problem is inconsequential; for Nicholas Carr (the author of the article), this crisis of the mind is of utmost importance: “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.”
Is there any cure for me? Anyone have any ideas of how to combat this? My very existence as a reader is at stake.