I have begun to suspect that my brain may be ruined. Short-circuited. Re-programmed. Made over into a Borg-like artifact of the 21st century – now that I have subjected myself for so many years to the buzzing, pinging siren call of the cell phone, the Tweet, the Facebook wall, the RSS feed and the short bursts of attention that online reading requires.
And then, enabling my impulsive addiction to video gaming, comes legions of solo and multi-user role-playing opportunities. XBox, Playstation, Wii: each provide instant immersion into compellingly rich, enchanting or spine-tingling situations.
Oh, I do love all this stuff! But I wonder.
Is it still possible anymore to become so transported by a book that I forget who and where I am? More to the point, where have the unbroken stretches of two and three hours gone? I find it difficult, anymore, to stay focused on one thing for any length of time. I remember another era, when spending a few hours with a good book in a quiet house was sufficient.
Alan Jacobs’ book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, is a tonic for readers who struggle with this daily deluge of modern media. His book takes the form of one long essay, penned in notes of commiseration, humor and encouragement but broken by a series of bold-faced headings into sub-topics (‘Yes, we can!,’ ‘Whim,’ ‘Slowly, slowly’. . .). These could easily be read in ten to twenty minutes.
Reading is still alive! That is the good news that can be taken to heart. Millions of readers flock to bookstores daily. Large chains, such as Barnes and Noble are in no danger of folding, and publishing is exploring – for better or worse – a brave new world of electronic books and journals.
We were often told to read in school because it’s ‘good for us’, like eating our vegetables. And sometimes from that coercion came a conditioned, if guilty, dislike. Our educational system can fail, in this regard, to communicate the sweet, soulful pleasure of trekking, unhurried and unbidden, through an author’s world.
Jacobs encourages readers to champion the authority of self in their reading – a force which he calls Whim (with a capital ‘W’), in which one’s passion determines what course we follow in choosing reading material, in which great books are marvelous opportunities for growth, not obligatory hurdles on some pedantic to do list.
Not surprisingly, he encourages us to throw off the binding chains of those canonical book lists of Adler, van Doren and Fadiman, and more especially those of the newer ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’ ilk. At least, he says, do not religiously follow these paths simply because somebody ‘more important’ than you said it would be good for you.
When significant works are read for accomplishment, or when strip-mined for content (as online media is designed to be), books lose their primary capacity to involve and radically change you, he says. Slow down. This is actually harder to do than it sounds.
Yes, ‘slow down.’ This could well be the saving mantra for humanity, as we rush pell-mell into our new digital century.
I do suspect our brains are being re-wired by the highly connected, electronic society we live in. But the process is not necessarily evil or Borg-like – witness the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Occupy’ movements which have sprung largely from the ability to instantly communicate with one another. It seems that tyranny cannot so easily hide behind disinformation any more.
And besides, our ‘re-wiring’ is not irrevocable: “The amazing thing about our brains is not that they are hard-wired to accomplish some particular task, but that they are not.” So goes current neurological thinking. This is good news, and I agree with Jacobs when he asserts that books are not in danger of becoming extinct.
But we have choices to make: how to read and why to read. And in making them, we should heed the authority of our personal journey.