Has the Web made us lose our ability to read books?

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2011 - 2:24 PM

In "The Lost Art of Reading," David Ulin reflects on a disturbing trend. Many people -- even people like him who love reading -- are having trouble taking time to read.

"These days, after spending hours on the computer," he writes, "I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page."

What Ulin is struggling with is something all of us may be experiencing: "the encroachment of the buzz," he calls it, "the sense that there is something out there that merits [our] attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age."

We live in an age of distraction, when technology fosters a kind of thinking that races over the surface rather than reflects on what lies beneath, when information, speed and nimble reaction are prized over knowledge, logical thinking and reasoned response.

If technology is causing people to spend less time reading -- or perhaps causing them to do a different kind of reading -- what are its implications for writers and writing? Is it helping or hurting?

The answer, I suspect, is both.

Few writers would complain of the extraordinary reach and convenience of the Internet when they need to find information or confirm facts. (When was the Ming Dynasty? Oh, yes, 1368-1644.) The Internet is more than a tool for writers; it's a playground for the inquisitive mind. But when we stop with information, when we do nothing more than take a quick look, we achieve little. Knowing the dates of the Ming Dynasty is not the same as understanding its historical, political and cultural importance. Information is not knowledge.

And that's where the short form worries me. The 140-character tweet cannot do what the 140,000-word novel does, neither for reader nor for writer. Although tweeting offers wonderful spontaneity, timeliness and concision, it lacks depth, linear thought and sustained development.

More worrisome yet is technology's impact on our thinking. As Nicholas Carr asks in "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," is technology revising the neurology of our brains? Is it altering the way we think? Even as it facilitates access to information, does it impede deep thinking and rational deliberation?

The type of "slow reading" that Ulin thinks worth preserving is "an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being." And for this to take place, we need to be patient, "to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail."

I'm with Ulin. Whether on paper or on screen, I think we need to find those "quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book," for it is there "we regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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