In the New York Times last week, Michelle Slatalla wrote a reflection about reading and the loss of attentional focus possibly caused by technology. Her reading experience echoes Nick Carr’s description in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Basically, with so much information available online, she has a hard time focusing on reading a novel…so many questions and ideas compete for her attention that she finds herself putting the novel down in favor of pursuing answers to other tangential questions. About a month ago, another article in the New York Times, “Stop Your Search Engines” by Peggy Orenstein likened this online information seeking to the Sirens’ song: alluring, but ultimately destructive.
Orenstein makes an interesting case for not pursuing the information trail. With so much available, when is it enough? When is information-seeking focused on endless searching rather than finding?
In Slatalla’s article, she challenges herself to read a book and, upon the advice of a friend, re-reads Gilead. I decided to take up the challenge and read it, too. I blocked out a few hours and decided that during that time, I wouldn’t check e-mail or go online. Then, I came across a word that I knew, but just wanted to double-check, insouciant. I could have grabbed my dictionary, but I decided the temptation was too great to go online, so I skipped it. Then, a few sentences later, effulgence. Again, a word whose definition I’m nearly sure of and could certainly glean meaning from the context, but would have liked to look up…online. A few paragraphs later, begats appeared, which I immediately figured out, but found it charming, and wanted to know more. When I was a kid, I always read with a dictionary beside me (very cool, I know) and I was again tempted to grab it. A few pages later, I stopped at susurrus, feeling that surely the author was showing off or at least taunting me. Looking up words to learn or confirm their definitions isn’t pursuing a Siren Song, is it? If I looked them up in the dictionary, I might linger over their etymology or read the definitions of surrounding words, but it likely wouldn’t interfere much with my attentional focus on the novel’s text. However, looking up definitions online would likely mean also checking e-mail, a trip to Facebook, and then, who knows.
I suspect Nick Carr is right. When I came across the vocabulary words in Gilead, I automatically pictured how I would look them up in Google (define: susurrus). I also started wondering what Wikipedia would have to say about the term. Gilead is interesting, but slow. Oddly, Internet searching feels a bit more gratifying…instantly finding information, solving problems…and then, of course, its interactivity makes it seem more entertaining. Is it wrong to be thinking like a Google search? Google was developed to mimic how academics evaluate information, so technically, maybe Google makes our thinking more focused and organized.
When is information just noise? I wonder how much information clutter I subject myself to in my daily searches. I also wonder if all of this searching eventually leads to finding, or just more searching. I guess the insouciant searcher isn’t concerned with the results, but what about those of us really trying to learn something?
Regarding Gilead, it is such a beautifully written book, that I’m glad I took up the challenge to read it. That said, after spending so much time on Facebook, reading a book seems, well, lonely. To be honest, I tried to give Gilead away to an ill friend the other day and she wouldn’t take it, which made me decide to renew my commitment to finishing it, this time in shorter bits. So, now it’s your turn: pick a novel and block out an afternoon or evening for reading and let me know if you’re more successful… Unlike Coke and Pepsi, I think the difference between reading online and reading a novel will be more pronounced. That said, I remember reading a piece by Malcolm Gladwell that said that people preferred Pepsi in taste tests, but if they had to drink a full glass, Coke was the winner….so enjoy your novel.