Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

READING BOOKS....In the LA Times today, Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, complains that Google and the internet are undermining the printed word:

Much as automobiles discourage walking, with undeniable consequences for our health and girth, textual snippets-on-demand threaten our need for the larger works from which they are extracted. Why read "Bowling Alone" or even the shorter article upon which it builds when you can lift a page that contains some key words?

....Will effortless random access erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.

Now, Baron clearly gets at least one thing wrong in her op-ed, when she suggests that old-school library stack browsing promoted serendipity while "today's snippet literacy efficiently keeps us on the straight and narrow path, with little opportunity for fortuitous side trips." No one who has browsed the internet and followed a long string of hyperlinks just out of curiosity can possibly believe this.

And yet, I suspect that Baron's main point has something to it. As Jeanne d'Arc writes today:

I find that the more I read online, the less I read off. I don't think it's even a matter of using up my reading time. It actually destroys brain cells or something, because if I've been doing too much online reading, I lose the patience for following a sustained or subtle argument, or reading a complex novel.

The same is true of me. It's not just that I spend less time reading books, it's that I find my mind wandering when I do read. After a few paragraphs, or maybe a page or two, I'll run into a sentence that suddenly reminds me of something and then spend the next minute staring into space thinking of something entirely unrelated to the book at hand. Eventually I snap back, but obviously this behavior reduces both my reading rate and my reading comprehension.

Is this really because of blogging? I don't know for sure, but it feels like it's related to blogging, and it's a real problem. As wonderful as blogs, magazines, and newspapers are, there's simply no way to really learn about a subject except by reading a book and the less I do that, the less I understand about the broader, deeper issues that go beyond merely the outrage of the day.

Then again, maybe it's just Jeanne and me. Anyone else feel this way?

Kevin Drum 2:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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