The death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recently and the tributes paid to him as a man and a writer left me confronting an awful gap in my life: I had never actually read one of his books. I recall making at least one attempt to read The Gulag Archipelago, but its detailed history and pervasive bleakness must have defeated me. Now, with one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century laid to rest, I wanted to know what I had missed out on. So I repaired to the “stacks” in our basement, dug out a yellowing paperback edition of The First Circle, and began to read it.
The question now is, how long will it take me? Reading real books — especially for mere pleasure or cultural enrichment — becomes a luxury when practically everything I need to know can be found at speed, and often conveniently pre-digested, along the highways and byways of the internet. For writers, the net is a tremendous boon. Essential background information, new data, half forgotten quotes, the opinions of major figures in the commentariat can all be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse. And there is always so much more; each hyperlink represents another lode of information waiting to be mined, and it can be hard to call a halt. Add to that the reading and sending of email, the scanning of news feeds and blogs, the odd foray into YouTube and (something I have dodged so far) greeting friends on Facebook or other social networking sites — and the time scheduled for a couple of chapters of Solzhenitsyn (or Stephen King, if you prefer) is gone, devoured by the Shelob sitting at the heart of the Worldwide Web.
Does it matter? After all, reading is reading and knowledge is knowledge whether it comes on paper between two covers or on a computer screen — isn’t it? You can even read a few chapters of The First Circle online, courtesy of Google Books, and maybe the whole of it, along with other great literature, electronically one day. That is the sanguine point of view adopted by Scott Karp of the website Publishing 2.0, who frankly admits that he has stopped reading books, except for the Disney Princess series he reads to his daughter. He likes blogs better. Reading a book from cover to cover is so… linear, so eighteenth century, whereas the web is networked, now, “kinetic, scattered, all over the place”. For Karp, these characteristics are not pitfalls but opportunities for a new way of thinking, the Google way of “pure, networked thought”. It’s an evolutionary step. Don’t worry, be happy.
Others are worried, though. They fear that doing most of their reading online is destroying their ability to concentrate and therefore to read a book, even when they want to. They agree that their thought patterns are changing, but they do not see it as progress and they do not rejoice. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asks the headline of a much-discussed essay by Nicholas Carr in The New Atlantic magazine. He strongly suspects that it is.
He writes: “As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” His friend, a pathologist and an academic laments that he “can’t read War and Peace any more… Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb.” Let’s hope he can force himself to read the latest studies in his field.
Skim-reading is a very useful skill. In the world of Google, where a search turns up a heap of links and texts of variable quality, it is absolutely indispensable; we have to decide quickly what is worth a closer read. The danger is, though, that the closer reading is not very deep either and that, as we skim pages and bounce from link to link, we become simply fact and quote collectors, or, to quote psychologist Maryanne Wolf, “mere decoders of information”. “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged,” Carr adds. Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
It’s not that the internet and deep thinking are strangers to one another; the deepest thinkers publish their work online as well as the shallowest. Indeed, the net provides opportunities to sample work of the brightest and best that would be hard to find otherwise, and MercatorNet, for one, would not exist unless we thought that was possible. Moreover, the dialogue and networking that takes place online can be a real aid to deeper thinking about the issues of our time, just as it can be a pooling of prejudice and empty witticisms.
But Carr’s warning that the medium itself, through our over-dependence on it, may imprint its own “message” or ethos on our minds is salutary. And what is that ethos? Again, he describes it well: that knowledge is a commodity, “a utilitarian resource to be mined and processed with industrial efficiency”; that technology may not only do most of our “knowledge work” for us but do it better. The holy grail for Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, it turns out, is artificial intelligence — something smarter than the human brain.
Smarter, perhaps, but only at the business of consuming and producing and consuming again because, let’s face it, Google and all the other commercial interests that power the internet go out of business if we don’t consume the products that vie for our attention as we try to actually read a page.
What this industrial, consumerist model leaves out, unfortunately, is everything that is distinctively human about intelligence, all its spiritual and moral depth. It leaves out attentiveness, or contemplation, which gives us the space to understand what we are reading and evaluate it against the wisdom of the ages, and in the light of our own philosophical beliefs and ethical commitments. It does not leave a vacuum in the mind, however, but subliminally fills it with its own values: innovation for its own sake, instant gratification and a pathetic belief that technology can save the world.
As the web “produces” ever more information it makes the human memory appear totally inadequate and redundant. Who needs to carry knowledge around in their head when it can be called up so easily online? In this way we can become walking ignoramuses, unable to recall properly the argument of the last article we read, let alone one of Hamlet’s soliloquies or even the verses of a song. And this forgetfulness can infect our friendships and human relationships in general: without a networking site or a palm pilot to help us out we don’t take in people’s names or family circumstances; we forget their birthdays, their problems, the appointments we made with them. We could even cease to care.
With all its tricks for making the acquisition of knowledge easy and pleasant, the internet hides from us the truth that real knowledge usually comes of hard work — not necessarily unpleasant work, but something definitely involving struggle and calling for the virtues of patience, perseverance and commitment. In place of virtue, the net offers know-how, or skill, and a superficial creativity driven by instant publication and feedback. Young people seem particularly susceptible to these things. A teenager in a New York Times article loves to read stories on line — many of them spin-offs from web-based entertainments — because “you could add your own character and twist it the way you want it to be”. How tiresome it could be, then, to have to try to understand what Jane Austen or JRR Tolkien or even J K Rowling actually said in their book, or to write a story that was wholly one’s own.
It is young people, in the end, who will suffer most from an unbalanced and uncritical use of the internet. They are the ones most likely to succumb to its temptations to superficiality, forgetfulness and the open-ended creativity that has no time for the wisdom of the past or any real commitment to the present and the future. They need to see their elders switching off the computer, spending time with good books — not just the latest best-seller — and discussing them around the table from time to time. Solzhenitsyn, from all accounts, gave us more wisdom about human nature and politics in a single book than a hundred Google searches can yield; but to understand that, it is necessary to read him.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.