If everbody was silent for a year - if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress - wouldn't we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.
~Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
This is a topic that I've been reading quite a bit about - ironically most of the articles comes from online publications: articles on how blogs and online surfing and reading are shortening our attention spans. I even posted previously the cover of the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr, who the author of this particular book David L. Ulin actually quotes.
On some level this is quite obvious: there's been a change in media. A change that allows us quicker access to the world around us - whether that be the latest bestseller or classics, music, news, the weather in Dubai. I'm not clear on the facts because that was a day I wasn't paying attention at all, but recently there was a stampede(?) in some south Asian country and pictures immediately appeared within minutes of the tragedy - grotesque, sad images that I thankfully ignored.
Ulin's thesis is that this change in media is changing how we read, how attentive we are, how we remember and thus how we identify ourselves. This is nothing new: I'm sure hand-written pamplets in the Lingua franca of the time bemoaning the "shocking" change flew out from underneath fevered, feathered pens all over Europe when the Bible was first translated into English and/or when Gutenburg first started using his moveable type.
But Ulin's point is that what happened over the course of hundreds of years with easier access to the written word seems to be taking place over the course of a decade with the new technology(actually he quotes a study in which it took 5 searches on the Internet for Internet-naive study-participants to start accessing the parts of the brain that more Internet-savy participants had already been accessing!). And it isn't simply that we are reading War and Peace on a screen. It seems (and so far I agree) that reading a book allows us to slow - basically I imagine The Lost Art of Reading as the Slow Foods manifesto for books.
It seems that the Internet has us distracted, according to Ulin, in a couple of ways: first as we read the short, sometimes really short posts, on the Internet, our attention spans shorten as well. This obviously makes reading longer pieces (whether in book form or on the web) difficult. But Ulin has calls cyberspace and ever-present entity: whatever we post is not forgotten - it's simply a Google search away. I don't know how much I agree with this. I realize that I blog, share things on Google Buzz, even simply add a star to items in my Google Reader, sometimes in an effort to remember things, but I don't remember them. I typically don't go back to check. For example, last week I added a star to a post on Björk and one to another post on gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns as though I was going to come back and post these on my blog. But I didn't.
However, according to Ulin, it is the always present nature of cyberspace that is also bad for us, saying that to remember something, for memory to actually work, we have to forget it, and though this sounds kind of backwards, I agree with it. So once again, as with shorter attention spans, we are affecting our neural network - creating new paths that lead to different issues of identity.
However, serious discussion of changing attention span, memory and neural pathways aside, the book also serves as one writer's path of reading and path to creating a space to continue reading. I find myself with another list of authors, books and short stories to look into.
Overall, I found The Lost Art of Reading very engaging. Ulin clearly states the issue, and through a discussion of his own reading life, his family life and his Internet life shows us how to strike a balance between reading and new technology.
(And, yes, I am fully aware of the irony involved in reviewing this type of book on my blog - well, on any blog. Also I'm aware that for this to be a "weekly" review, that I'm suggesting I do reviews weekly, so just suck it. K? ;) )
David L. Ulin is book critic for the Los Angeles Times and should you get some message that you're being talked about on my blog...HI!