Law in the Internet Society
(Second Revision, Ready for Review)

Struggling Against the Decline of Reading

-- By YuShi - 17 Dec 2009

"I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

-Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August 2008.


I stumbled across Carr's article while flipping nonchalantly through an old copy of The Atlantic a few weeks ago. The catchy name of the piece jumped out at me, but it was Carr's story about his diminished attention span that soon caught my attention. His anecdote might as well have described me. A voracious reader all throughout middle and high school, I have not read a full novel for leisure in a few years. The last book I attempted to read, Anna Karenina, I barely got past the midway point of the novel before giving up for good. It is not that I no longer have the time or the passion for reading - it remains an ardor of mine and I still read a decent amount during winter and summer breaks - but my reading habits have changed. Like Carr, I have a short attention span while reading and my mind frequently wanders, no matter how interesting the text. The days of my sitting down with a Bronte or Austen and reading for both content and style seem so long ago; nowadays I find myself perusing mostly short stories and magazine articles, things that I can begin and finish in a short amount of time. I resort to poetry to satiate my craving for style and eloquence.

Carr's Hypothesis and Its Appeal

Carr blames technology - and the internet in particular - for his diminished ability to concentrate and contemplate while reading. Among the factors implicated by Carr is that the information overload presented by the internet is having a detrimental impact on the way we think. Specifically, deep thought is giving away to superficial thought, and enjoyment through contemplation is replaced by fulfillment through instant gratification. These changes, according to Carr, combine to make literary reading an increasingly arduous task.

Although cognizant that Carr's theory lacks empirical proof and is heavily criticized, I was nevertheless drawn to the idea that the internet might be the culprit behind my own declining capacity for reading. Firstly, I could not fault television, because after all, I grew up in the age of the television and the television has always been there. There was no pre-TV and post-TV distinction to which I could point; I could not say that my reading declined only after the television became an ubiquitous part of our society. Moreover, I did not and still do not watch much television. Secondly, I discovered that one major and unfortunate change in my literary reading habits is that I am increasingly reading for content instead of style. In fact, I would skip over parts that I deem to be irrelevant to the development of the plot, and oftentimes it is in those sections that the most beautiful prose lie. This habit mirrors, and perhaps grew out of, my perusal of online material. There is so much for me to read online, that spending more time than necessary on any one piece meant that I would not have as much time to read other interesting pieces.


It occurred to me that I WANT to believe Carr's theory because I needed a scapegoat, and the internet provided a convenient target. I did not want to think that I lack the discipline to focus on a piece of text for a length of time, or that maybe law school is burning me out to the extent that I now have a difficult time reading literature outside of school. Stumbling upon Carr's article gave me relief because I could then tell myself that the problem did not lie with me, but was caused by the internet. Also, seeing that people like Carr and his colleagues are having the same issues reassured me; I thought if these accomplished writers are experiencing the same thing, then maybe my problems aren't so bad after all.

Whatever the origin of the problem, however, one thing is clear: I cannot fix my declining capacity for reading by blaming the internet. It is time that I start taking practical measures to get back to reading like I once did.


Webs Webs

r8 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:02 - IanSullivan
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