May 14, 2010, 10:55AM

Sven Birkerts on our collective, internet-driven ADD

On the value of a good book.

As a person raised on the Internet, who spent formative years on its most debased, prepubescent hells—MySpace, chatrooms, message boards, eBaum’s World—I’ve tried to exorcise some of these experiences by reading literature, whose authors know what they're doing with language. The Internet, while central to my life for research and music, doesn’t often offer exposure to much quality writing and thought. The problem is that when it does, it's extremely easy for me to stumble out of it, onto countless other Web distractions.

The literary critic Sven Birkerts has an interesting piece in the Spring 2010 issue of American Scholar about the Internet’s effects on our reading habits. Birkerts draws much of his argument from Nicholas Carr, whose July 2008 Atlantic cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” sparked an ongoing discussion—fueled by possibly Luddite tendencies—about the Internet’s effects on the reading brain. Carr's idea was that our brains are themselves becoming like the Internet: that is, distracted and full of various, shallow information. Sven Birkerts contends that the Internet endangers a certain type of human cognition: what he calls “intransitive” thought, or thought for thought’s sake, thought that doesn’t process facts towards a specific end.

Birkerts, with what seems like classic Humanities-type anxiety (that the math-whiz kids at Google are destroying our culture with efficiency), says that this “endangered” type of thought can be found in reading a novel. The way literary language draws in the human mind is, according to Birkerts, an “antidote” to the Web’s attention-sapping overabundance, because it helps us regain our focus. Many people find it difficult to read anything long-form, with our new-media brains:

When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation.
What’s at stake, though, in books?

 I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life, which is ever associative, a shuttling between observation, memory, reflection, emotional recognition, and so forth. A good novel puts all these elements into play in its own unique fashion.
The truth is that well-written novels can sustain one’s attention so that a genuine contemplation—a “proxy-experience,” as Birkerts calls it—of another consciousness is simulated. Words, rhythmically arranged to approximate the author’s, or a character’s, view of reality. Certain phonetic and aesthetic qualities of words resonate somehow with being human. Birkerts is rightly unsure about the discernable value of this:

I watch people crossing the street at an intersection and something of the character’s or author’s sense of scale—how he inflects the importance of the daily observation—influences my feeling as I wait at the light… Is this a widening or deepening of my experience? Does it in any way make me better fit for living? Hard to say.
The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about the role of sustained attention in intelligence. After discussing a study about delayed gratification in four-year-olds, Lehrer writes:

The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of errata and distractions—intelligence is the ability to parse reality so that it makes just a little bit more sense …So how can we bolster our selective attention abilities? This is pure speculation, but I see research like this as an important defense of difficult novels. When we read a complex narrative—say, Proust or Woolf or DFW—we're forced to constantly exert our attentional muscles just to follow along.
This is partially correct. But when reading novels, we don’t just read through a complex narrative. We read a coherent narrative with effectual pace and rhythms, which give us the impression of partly living in its world. I don’t think mere attention-strengthening is what literature gives us, although this may be a feature. Harold Bloom said we read in order to “strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.”

Birkerts again:

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.
I expect we’ll further adapt to solve these problems, as everything becomes digital, which it will. Attention will be something we may need to discipline ourselves into, as the Internet grows older. But it’s still worth thinking about the value of contemplative thought, and remaining skeptical about new technology.


Register or Login to leave a comment