Mass media confessionals like Oprah are so wildly successful not only because you get to listen to thrilling stories about how someone was made to have sex with the family python and flog their kidneys on EBay to fund the smack habit of their domestic jailers, but because you suddenly discover that your own childhood of having been made to have sex with the family python and flog your kidneys on EBay to fund the smack habit of your domestic jailors, wasn’t so singularly freakish. You realise that your deep, dark secret actually lies plumb along the median of human experience. A great weight lifts from your heart; other people know how you feel; it’s normal. You are not alone.
That’s how I felt as I read an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ by Nicholas Carr, in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic.com. Carr moans about the fact that long years of using the Internet have changed the way his mind works, most noticeably while reading. He can no longer concentrate on books and long passages; it’s a struggle to stay with what he terms ‘deep reading’. And this is not a new phenomenon: the article describes how emerging technologies—once the printing press and the typewriter, and now the Internet—have, through the ages, seemingly messed with the very circuitry of human minds, reducing attention span, feeding the hunger to move on, lowering the boredom threshold, even as they have tilled new fields of epistemic gold.
Carr hastens to mention that he is not alone in facing this grim decimation of reading ability. With quotes, anecdotes and similar confessions from other literary types of his acquaintance, he puts together a social history of mush-mindedness that has set my troubled soul free by reassuring me that I’m not alone, except that it was a really long article and my eyes kept glazing over.
It was once inconceivable to me to spend a day without reading for at least an hour or two. But I’ve turned from a two or three-books-a-week kind of person to what would be a no-books-a-month kind of person if I didn’t make myself read by promising myself some kind of chocolatey reward afterwards. The long letters I used to write to friends and family have dwindled to four-line emails sent every few months, and while nobody has really complained about this, I like to think that they hurt deep inside. Things have changed, and fast. Whenever I do get through a book, I desperately miss the old times when getting through it was not work, but play of the most riveting kind.
As if an amputated attention span weren’t enough, the Internet has also nailed us with information overload of the most deadly, paralytic kind. I have such a cripplingly clear view of the impossible volume of stuff that I want to read that I don’t know where to start reading, let alone how to write about books, which was once a thing I could do with unflagging interest. The only way out seems to be to fish out, from the self-same benighted Internet, summaries and précis of books one hasn’t read. The Worldwide Web has made secondary-source researchers of us all, trained to make it sound as if we’ve actually read everything we refer to.
If there’s an upside to all this, it is that the concomitant loss of ability to retain anything I read makes for a fresh experience every time my eyes gloss over mid-passage, making it necessary to start again at the beginning. Life in the fishbowl is endlessly interesting if you’re the fish.