Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Attention Span

    In a new book called THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS, Nicholas Carr argues that the internet, in changing the way we search for information, is also changing the way we absorb and process that information.  That change is not for the better.  Specifically, the capacity for sustained concentration on lengthy or difficult material, the ability to stay focused on arguments and exposition developed at book-length, suffers from our growing tendency to take in our information in bite-sized bursts.
    At this time, I've read only Carr's opening chapters, though the book has joined one of about eleven gazillion on the to-be-read pile, a pile that I'll be getting around to One Day Soon...  But Carr's view of this harmful effect of the way we use the tools offered by the internet doesn't strike me as something new.  The same phenomenon was noted years ago in connection with television by McLuhan, Neil Postman, and others, if memory serves.

    Ever wondered why we had to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  That's not as great a leap into off-topic irrelevancy as it may seem at first glance.

    Before I hit the eighth grade, I'd read a number of books by Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Haggard, Verne, Stevenson, Defoe, and others.  Not all of their works by any means, but a respectable number for a kid of twelve or thirteen.  In eighth grade I discovered contemporary science fiction and fantasy books and for nearly twenty years almost all my pleasure reading was in those genres, with generous dollops of mystery and suspense fiction as well.  I didn't neglect my school work, but any reading I did that wasn't required was in work by contemporary writers, and most of those writers came out of the science fiction and mystery pulp magazines.  So heavy was my concentration on this material that one of my high school English teachers (Edith Nelson at Lindblom Tech in Chicago -- hello, if you're still out there) tried constantly to steer me back into more of the classics, to no avail.

    Fast forward a bit.  High school was 45 years ago.  There are a lot of books on hand, on my shelves and on my Kindle (and as I noted last week, that stack is more aspiration than accomplishment).  Among them: Montaigne's essays, Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Powell's DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME, Samuel Johnson, and yes, George Eliot too.  All of these writers, dipped into, but not read in any systematic way.  Some of their books read, but not nearly all and not nearly all the ones I know I should get around to before I'm planted (and these are books I'd like to get around to because I expect to enjoy them much more than I would have in high school or college, and not out of any sense of obligation).
    And why are so many of them still unread?
    Call it the Carr effect if you like, but it predates him.  The internet can lead to atrophy in our capacity to concentrate on demaning material?  So can spending too much time on less demanding material regardless of the medium.  I'd never go so far as to say that good popular fiction is a waste of time -- I don't regret a moment spent reading the work of Theodore Sturgeon, for instance -- but an overemphasis on it can, I think, cause the attention span to shrink to the point where it becomes very difficult to stay focused on lengthy and demanding material.  The mental muscles, like the physical, atrophy if they don't get enough use.

    Why did we have to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  Call it mental gymnastics.  If you actually did the assigned work, you knew that you could read a long demanding book, you could focus on intricate problems; you knew you could concentrate.  That's something you don't get from reading a lot of contemporary popular literature.  That's my experience, anyway, and I'm probably not unique.

    How about you?  Finished BLEAK HOUSE, WAR AND PEACE, and Montaigne yet?

    If you have, my hat's off to you.  If you haven't, don't feel like the Lone Ranger -- I haven't finished them yet either.  But they're on my list.

And bests to all,


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