I read an excerpt from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, and I have to say it struck a familiar, sad chord with me. Carr, along with a handful of peers, admit that while they were once voracious readers, they now can barely stand to sit and read an entire work of prose. It pains me to say that I must count myself among them. I thought perhaps it was just that my tastes in books had changed, or stress and being overworked has left my brain too tired, but the more I read of Carr’s explanation of the Internet’s role, the more it resonated with me.
On a strange flip-side, these same people who no longer consume books in mass, seem to be at their most creative as writers. I can attest to this as well, for I have been more prolific in my writing in the past two years than the first three of my author career combined. Carr attributes this burst in productivity to the vast amounts of knowledge that sit right at our fingertips, needing only an Internet connection to access them. Thus, reading actual books for information becomes obsolete. And while it’s true that Google and Wikipedia have become allies for me as a writer, why has my appetite for prose suffered as well?
According to the examples cited in the book, I’m not the only one. Former devout English Lit majors confess they haven’t picked up a lengthy novel in years. SparkNotes and Shmoop have become the bane of English professors trying to educate a generation that has been bottle-fed instant information. I’m currently halfway through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which the English class I’m interpreting for is supposed to be reading, but it is a struggle to keep at it with any diligent concentration. I can remember a time when I would have basked in the flowery language, the poetic imagery, but now I find myself becoming distracted. Skimming. My finger twitching with the urge to scroll rather than turn a page.
Gone, it seems, are the days when I could immerse myself in a book for pleasure. Even when reading something I do enjoy, sometimes I find myself inexplicably skimming over the very craft I work so hard to hone. My brain flits hither and thither, the need to switch windows and look at something else interrupting in shorter and shorter time increments.
All of this leaves me with a rather troubling question as an author — who am I writing for? Is there an audience out there for my work, or are there only a resilient few of strong mind in a dry and dusty land? I never would have thought I’d lose my love of reading books. In fact, I have remained resistant to several elements of technology in protest of getting swallowed up in/by them. But if my brain itself and the way it functions, as Carr proposes, has been affected so drastically without my realizing it, what of others? Are we all slowly being altered on a synapse level by our technology? Are we in some ways creating the first evolution of Borg?
When it comes to the publishing industry, I see a lot of discourse focused on how to make the sales, how to create a fan base, how to market. But is it possible that in a few more decades, it won’t even matter? Is society hemorrhaging readers without us noticing? I would be very curious to know how many book sales then convert to actually being read, and read in full, not just skimmed. The business person probably wouldn’t care, but the reader I used to be, and the storyteller I am, does. Because there is a void where books used to take up a significant part of my life. And I don’t know how to undo such damage.
I was just talking to a coworker about this this morning. I bought a book I was super excited to read last week, from a series we’ve both been reading, and she asked if I’d finished yet (I had a WHOLE WEEKEND to read it!). I’m not even a quarter done with it. She’s reading an earlier book in the series and same thing: all weekend to read, she’s just about a quarter done. Neither of us “reads like we used to”. There’s always some new flashy thing to do online instead. I’ve had to switch back to physical books to get any reading done this year, because if I try to read on my phone or tablet I just end up on Twitter. Switching to physical books has helped me read more this year, but when my phone’s always nearby, flashing that little green light when someone says something, it’s hard to keep reading.
Audiobooks, however, I’ve been listening to more than ever. Part of that is because of a test at work that I’m running, and it gives me lots of time to listen. Part of it is that I can listen while getting ready for bed or doing chores, when I wouldn’t be able to physically read a book.
I think the use of my tablet has definitely been a huge factor in this change I’ve experienced. For me, it’s the ability to scroll that seems to make reading harder (or should I say distracted reading easier). Not feeling it? Let’s jump ahead and see if there’s a more interesting part.
And yeah, I could have tons of hours on the weekend I could spend on the sofa with a book, but I fill them with other stuff.
Interesting about the audiobooks! I’ve tried listening to lectures while doing things like chores or getting ready for bed, but have found that I can’t concentrate unless I’m looking at the video screen of the presentation.
I’ve found I really like hard sci-fi on Audiobook. I can skim the sciencey pays that are over my head and just enjoy the rest.