When I first got into arguments about "what the Web is doing to our culture and our brains," I was manging editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was an extraordinary personal experience and a fascinating time to be in reference publishing, but those arguments were also very much shaped by the interests of the time: in particular, debates over the impact of the Internet were taking place in the shadow of the culture wars and arguments about the future of literature and cricism. Reading the literature on how the Web is making us dumb, I'm struck by the fact that while we no longer talk about how Derridian the experience of the reading on the Web is (even though publishers, authorities, and traditional ideas about grammar and quality are busy deconstrcting themselves), the opponents of that view are still going strong. They're still using literature as a proxy for intelligence and education, and are still implicitly making the case for the importance of literature in the formation of the self.
One excellent example is Sven Birkets' recent American Scholar essay on reading in the digital age. Birkets is the author of The Gutenberg Elegies and has more or less turned into the Vivaldi of the Concerto for the Death of the Book: he hasn't written 400 different pieces, but written the same piece 400 times. The specific technology that's destroying literate culture, our appreciation of the novel, and even our capacity to read, changes over time (it was the personal computer in 1991, it's Google and Kindle today), but the key stays the same.
Reading the Atlantic cover story by Nicholas Carr on the effect of Google (and online behavior in general), I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well....
This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes....
I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.
In his 1967 memoir, "Stop-Time," Frank Conroy describes his initiation into literature as an adolescent on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I'd lie in bed . . . ," he writes, "and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. . . . The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own." I know that boy: Growing up in the same neighborhood, I was that boy. And I have always read like that, although these days, I find myself driven by the idea that in their intimacy, the one-to-one attention they require, books are not tools to retreat from but rather to understand and interact with the world.
So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. This is what Conroy was hinting at in his account of adolescence, the way books enlarge us by giving direct access to experiences not our own. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.
Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.... Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.
Carr doesn't talk about literature much in The Shallows, but literary reading serves as a marker of what's going wrong: "I was a lit major in college, and...a voracious reader," one friend complains. "What happened?" An academic blogger confesses, "I can't read War and Peace any more. I've lost the ability." (Carr, The Shallows, 7) This is not to say that this kind of reading is unimportant; certainly you get the sense that many of these authors were bookish, introverted kids. Ulin recalls that when he was "my grandmother used to get mad at me for attending family functions with a book. Back then, if I'd had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged." Doubtless this will strike a chord for some of us; it certainly does for me.
And yet I can't quite buy the idea that reading novels is quite as important for most of us as Ulin, Birkets et al claim; that the intellectual and reflective skills developed through an engagement with literature are to be found only there; or that reading and contemplation are transitives.
Maybe I'm also particularly attuned to the historical character of the arguments about the significance of literature because of where I happen to be. You might think that going from Silicon Valley to Cambridge to work on computer things is doing things backward: SIlicon Valley is the world capital of high tech, after all, while Cambridge is... not. But I keep being struck by how many of the things I'm grappling with are subjects that have occupied some very serious minds here, or are still being discussed in terms set by people here a long time ago.
Last night I was reading Cambridge Minds, and the discussion of Cambridge English. Contrary to what you might think, English at Cambridge is a very recent field: the first professorship in English literature was created about a century ago, over the objection of classicists who argued that it was Not A Serious Subject. In response, I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis made a case both for criticism as a scientific activity (Richards invoked the work of neurologists like Sherrington), and for literature as the vehicle (particularly in an increasingly secular age) for forming the self. I suspect that Richards would read The Shallows or The Gutenberg Elegies and recognize the same arguments he made century ago, and the same anxieties driving them.
*With apologies to Robert Darnton. And yes, undergrowl is a word.