I remember the first time I got that TLDR message from someone who I sent a link to.
So, let me start this long item with the short version for the TLDR crowd, because this is about you and what is being said about you: 1) The Atlantic Monthly, in a cover story for a forthcoming double issue, worries, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Don’t worry, you aren’t stupid just lazy. The only thing I find stupid is the article. 2) And, while we are on the subject of commonplaces about the Internet and our reading habits, I take a seemingly random digression about the decline of serious fiction in the United States, to point out the only problem with contemporary fiction is caused by the failure of literary- minded writers to be at all contemporary. Meanwhile, I trill and thrill over the possibilities that the Internet brings to our ability to think and understand art and the world far more deeply than ever before.
Failure first: I have been struggling to write a novel set in Vegas. And, a struggle it has been. I’ve made more than a dozen starts and I am on Page 3 of the most recent effort. One of the problems, the biggest problem, I am having is that I am trying to set my novel in the present tense in Las Vegas. Vegas, of course, has special problems in terms of being current. How do you stay present when you start writing Chapter One, Stardust and New Frontier are open for business on the Strip, but closed before you finish Chapter Four? Who knows what will happen with the bankrupt Tropicana? What will it be like in CityCenter? And Encore is opening in a few months. The problems mount the more you ponder Vegas. Will the Monorail be disassembled or expand to the airport? Any of these details, and a million like them, could date a Vegas novel. Las Vegas will not stay still for the time it takes to write 300-400 pages of fiction. And, then there is the lag to publication in traditional publishing. No book written about Las Vegas right now could be printed and reach book stores through traditional publishing without a wide range of unpredictable anachronisms.
I admit that Las Vegas presents special challenges to the novelist, intellectually and artistically. Still, while I have not taken a statistical survey, much of the contemporary fiction published these days is set in the past, even if that past is 1995. One exception was Charles Bock’s recent Vegas novel, Beautiful Children, which attempts a kind of present yet falls flat as characters make cell calls when they would nowadays text. But my main point is that many of the best-known young fiction writers, like Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tart (pick your name), have made no effort to take on these times the way the writers of the ’80s (Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz) felt impelled to do as an ambition. And, the literary rat pack of the ’80s was the degraded end of the way writers like Fitzgerald and Mailer attempted to grapple with their times by using the novel. The contemporary American novel has been shirking the challenge of the age, and no novel yet really addresses the tremendous upheavals of the technological revolution that we live with constantly in 2008. There have not even been interesting failures.
On the literary side, addressing the now is mostly left to poets who can avoid the specifics, a school of critics whose intellectual shoddiness in only matched by their unreadable prose. Mostly, serious non-fiction, including essays, have taken over the space in the public mind of addressing the now. And, those nonfiction forms long and short are enjoying a Renaissance not shared by fiction.
Next month the intellectually inclined yet general-interest Atlantic Monthly magazine offers a new explanation for the decline of interest in literary fiction, and long books for that matter. In a cover story for the July/August issue, Nicholas Carr argues that we may be losing our ability to read long books because of the Internet rewiring how we think. One person worries to Carr about losing the ability to read War and Peace.
Here, in a nutshell, is Carr’s case argued in the essay, “Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains”:
“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 would spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose ... Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages … I think I know what is going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing … 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 swiftly moving streams of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
What is funny, in part, is that Carr’s article is exactly the sort of densely argued essay he claims he is being deprived by the Net from even being able to read. Yet, he still seems capable of writing such work that starts by referencing Marshall McLuhan and tours through recent scholarly journal articles on the mind and media theory. On the way are side trips that examine a film by Stanley Kubrick, an extended anecdote based on the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, and a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. Carr also provides an examination of Guttenberg’s invention of printing press, the story of the process behind the influential 1911 work The Principles of Scientific Management, and a summary of a wonderful 1976 book by an MIT scientist. Carr even unpacks Lewis M Mumford’s thoughts on how the clock impacted human behavior in the 14th Century.
Back in the day, if you did not already know any of those references in an article like Carr’s, well, you used to just be out of luck unless you lived near a major university research library. Now, every name he drops can be explored at length on the Net. In fact, what was once the experience of reading one magazine article can turn into a day of exploring the history of philosophy, media theory or the films of Stanley Kubrick. I can spend a day learning more and reflecting on Carr’s points, if I cared enough. Carr’s argument ignores how the Net also allows us to go deep and follow any interest into great knowledge unavailable to any previous generation.
Example: The other day I ran into a poem on a painting I never saw, but the poem offered an appealing description. A Google image search gave me the painting to view and made available to me as well the history of the artist and his other work.
What the science tells us, Carr says in his article, is that the human mind is “almost infinitely malleable.” His worry is that our brains our now rewiring ourselves for the Internet age. Yet, he misses the meaning of the word infinite. Is there any reason the mind can’t allows us to Jet Ski and scuba dive? Certainly, it has been my experience that on the Web, I do both.
Final thought: Carr's essay is too high-minded and packed with the writings and the thoughts of experts to dwell on the evidence available from the culture he is analyzing. That turns out to be a problem, because the question of if the Net will ruin our mind's ability to read long books has already been answered. The answer: no.
More interesting than any of the studies or examples Carr mentions is that he ignores the greatest phenomenon in reading since the Net and other new technologies transformed the way we communicate and access information. Yes, not mentioned by Carr are the lowly Harry Potter books. These long books were consumed by a generation whose minds have developed biologically with the Net and all of the newfangled ways Carr argues we are being transformed by irrevocably. But for this generation, the Net has always been how their minds are engaged. Yet, when an author wrote a series of big, long books that were irresistibly good enough, that generation tossed aside their computers to read those long books. Then the generation that surely coined TLDR happily went back to their computers to discuss, analyze and learn about what they had read through the countless Harry Potter options on the Net.