Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading, consciousness, and technology: intimate relations

I've been reading David L. Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. His essay traverses the path of a familiar anxiety: he recently noticed that the life of his own mind had been dramatically changed by his immersion in the internet and the social media associated with it, and that he feels an urgent need to do (or figure out) something about that-- without necessarily giving up all access to the internet (which would be highly impractical for any professional person).

I'd thought, at first, from the way the book opened, that it was going to be more about reading than about living in a "distracted time." But it departs from talking about experiencing particular books when Ulin finds himself having trouble finishing a reread of The Great Gatsby that he decided to undertake in order to encourage his son, who was reading it (and annotating its pages for a class)-- this though Gatsby is a book he has always loved. His then worries that his concentration span doesn't easily accommodate the reading of books the way it used to, a change he attributes to his constant immersion in (or should I say preoccupation with?) the internet and the swiftly shifting, fleeting habits of attention he believes its uses are susceptible to. The Lost Art of Reading draws heavily on other's studies or insights, which Ulin uses to try to make sense of what his happening to his own habits of mind (and, he implies, others', too). Much of this is resonant and (therefore?) interesting. For instance, this passage, likening reading one's iPod in the middle of the night (which I sometime do, since it doesn't disturb Tom's sleep)-- though unlike Ulin, I mainly read books new to me on my iPod:
Of course, the books I've downloaded to my iPod are not new to me, but rather works I know from other formats, from the physical, as well as the virtual, world. In that sense, e-reading remains an ancillary activity, less about discovery than reassurance of a kind. This, [Nicholson] Baker notes, is one appeal of the iPod, which offers ease of access "when you wake up at 3
AM and you need big, sad, well-placed words to tumble slowly into the basin of your mind." The sensation he describes is familiar: "Hold it a few inches from your face with the words enlarged and the screen's brightness slider bar slid to its lowest setting, and read for ten or fifteen minutes....After a while, your thoughts will drift off to the unused siding where the old tall weeds are, and the string curving words will toot a mournful toot and pull ahead." That is what it's like to read a book under the covers, while holding a flashlight up to the pages. It reflects one of my most common memories of childhood, another kind of neural pathway, an experience etched deeply into my brain. Something similar occurs with the iPad, or with software such as Sophie, both of which evoke an essential booklike sensibility within the digital realm. It doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that what we have here is an example of art influencing technology, a back-and-forth that has its roots in our relationship to written language and then extrapolates outward, to the screen. (135)

He then notes that relationship has to work in the opposite direction as well-- that the digital world is so much a part of our reality that "investigating the relationship between technology an intimacy" needs to be integrated "into the fiber of [a novel's] narrative." He then suggests that reading material like the PowerPoint chapter of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, when read in a print book devoid of electronic components is "interesting if a bit abstracted," compared with reading it onlne, on Egan's website. He quotes Egan herself, who reveals that she had never used PowerPoint and "normally write fiction by hand." "What I needed to do was find the internal structure of each fictional moment and reveal it visually."

His conclusion about where writers are taking us is not surprising (though one I don't often see): "We've gone from a situation in which technology allows us to enhance a book after it's been written to one in which authors such as Moody or Egan adapt it in the framing of their texts. Technology, in other words, is now a matter of aesthetics, of intention. But if this suggests a new approach to writing, what's important is that we have the agency, that as readers, we get to decide."(141)

This conclusion leads in turn to an interesting speculation:
What if the e-book is a catalyst for reconnection, by engaging our fascination with technology to stir long-form reading, by integrating deep concentration with the lure of the machine? What in the e-book is the means by which we start to get beneath the fragmentation, the scattering of attention, the drift that marks so much of our digital life? I say this as someone who doesn't do a lot of electronic reading....I say this knowing the e-reader changes the nature of the conversation, and yet, I can't help but feel hopeful about the buzz these devices generate, all those people reading e-books on-screen. The process is familiar, as familiar a Baker turning to his iPod in the middle of a sleepless night....What all this shares is a certain primacy of the text, a sense that, enhanced or oterwise, reading can exist in a variety of different forms.(141-42)

Ultimately, Ulin suggests, we live in the world of Borges's "The Library of Babel," "the place where possibility tips into overload." "What we need is silence--not to disconnect but as a respite, to uncover a little piece of stillness in the din."(147) It is sort of an eat one's cake and have it too solution, of course. Certainly it was a "solution" for his problem that was obvious to me from the start, though for a while I wondered if he would end up somewhere else. The interest of the read is not in the solution, of course, but in some of the material he draws on along the way. I especially enjoyed his including a quotation from Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains that describes what happens when a medieval bishop learned to read silently (as opposed to aloud):

Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, "as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent to me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart." Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn't involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was-and is--the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this "strange anomaly" in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.

1 comment:

Janbo said...

I know exactly what that feels like. I'd lost the ability to locate that sense of falling into a story for many years, but it's coming back to me now. I welcome it.