Google Made Me Stupid. How Do I Learn to Read Again?


“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

I can’t read anymore.

That’s not exactly true. I read every day. I sit on the couch, or on the toilet, or at my desk thumbing my phone. I check my email. My eyes dart down for that little red Facebook notification. But I haven’t read a physical novel in about a year. I do still read novels in digital format, although I can’t say I would if I wasn’t doing reviews for LitReactor

The problem is I just don't have the patience. 

Nicholas Carr predicted this eight years ago with his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr, known for his writings on technology, business and culture, published the article in The Atlantic. Its argument is that the Internet affects cognition, with Carr confessing he can’t read long books and colleagues claiming tomes like War and Peace are now out of their grasp:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. 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.

He discusses technological paradigm shifts, such as Fredrick Nietzsche switching to a typewriter when he started to go blind and how that changed his sentence structure. But in 2008, the major paradigm shift of social media hadn't quite taken hold yet, and the smartphone's easy accessibility was a few years away. 

So is there any way to turn back the clock, or is my brain changed forever? And if it’s too late for me, what will the future be like for my children?

First, a little bit of background. Like most white males that write about pop culture, I grew up a bookworm. I always had a beat-up paperback shoved in my pocket. In school, I read before class, at lunch, during gym, and generally preferred fictional worlds over reality. At night I read long past my bedtime, often to the chagrin of my parents.

I listened to audiobooks at first because it was a diversion, but now I do it because I’ve gotten lazy.

These books ranged from science fiction, with the likes of William Gibson, to horror, with Stephen King as a favorite, to crime fiction, Elmore Leonard topping that list. I wasn’t very picky, but I knew I wanted to always have a book in hand.

The last fiction book I read was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and certainly that doesn’t count. As it’s a stage play, it’s in script format and is a much brisker read than the prose of a novel. With a focus on dialogue and stage direction, I breezed through that in no time. 

The last novel I finished in digital format, however, was The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. It being digital, however, meant I could easily read it on my computer while multi-tasking. See, my day-to-day life is a little hectic, and working from home as an editor I have a workstation with three computer monitors. My headspace centers around my “work” being on the screen in front of me, but to my right and left are all sorts of distractions. Generally on my right might be Facebook, which in and of itself is something I should probably quit. But on my left can be a novel that I can read in small bursts.

There’s also the fact that reviewing for LitReactor, doing Bookshots, gives me a goal to accomplish. I’m reading the novel in question, currently Zadie Smith’s Swing Time for a review next month, because it’s a job. I’ve become task-oriented in my entertainment, much like how the ability to Google information instantaneously has changed the way I interact with the entire world around me. These PDF documents can also be read with a tablet, and contain little accessories like a search option that makes gathering information oh so easy. Put this together, and I find myself looking for the hyperlinks when reading physical documents.

This task-oriented approach to reading has certainly affected most of my entertainment. I have written a few essays on pop culture for upcoming books, and am currently working on another, and I find myself now only seeking out fiction that can benefit my work. Will I be able to write about this movie or book in some capacity? When did I forget how to immerse myself in the world of a fictional story?

It doesn’t help that a few years ago I got turned on to how amazing audiobooks can be. I’ve always had a long commute, with that only changing recently, and started drifting away from music a few years ago. NPR is good listening but can be a bit dry at times. So first I sought out audiobooks from the library, and in the last year have discovered they can be downloaded to a phone via a library app. The magic of the future! 

And I haven’t decided yet whether or not audiobooks are completely shallow or a brilliant piece of art. Not only are there amazing voice actors, like Marc Thompson who has been doing the majority of Star Wars novels for the last decade, but on occasion there’s music and even sound effects. The whole thing ends up feeling like one of those old radio plays, and that can be incredibly immersive and engrossing, especially in contrast to the Hawk & Tom Morning Show.

But what started off as a diversion during my morning drive has overridden good chunks of my day. I play audiobooks when I’m in the shower, when I’m walking the dog and, when I’m alone, doing chores around the house. And while some would argue audiobooks are just a tool to deliver the same story, others would say that’s not true at all. There’s a purity, one might argue, in creating the voices and inflections in your head. The voice actor can’t help but make choices when it comes to tone and accents.

For instance, I’ve read the majority of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series several times, but I’ve also listened to the entire series just about as many times. And not only do I have to contend with my own manifestations of Roland, Eddie, Susannah and Jake from my head, but with Frank Muller’s and George Guidall’s, as well. The first book in the series, The Gunslinger, was originally read by King himself but a later updated version (it’s a long story) is read by Muller, as is the fifth through seventh books. The second, third and fourth books, however, are read by Guidall. This can be a bit of a jarring experience if you listen to them back to back (especially Guidall’s take on Eddie’s Brooklyn accent versus Muller’s), and in the end my brain tries to approximate a character somewhere in-between all the voices. But the fact remains that the readers are doing the work for me, and is that experience somehow less authentic? 

Now I have one daughter and another on the way, and part of our nightly routine is reading before bedtime. So my oldest's earliest experiences with books, in fact all children’s first experiences, is having them filtered through the perspective of the reader, in this case myself or my wife. And it could be argued that oral storytelling is the oldest form of communicating narratives. But who am I really kidding? I listened to audiobooks at first because it was a diversion, but now I do it because I’ve gotten lazy.

Which brings me back to good ol’ fashion, musty, dog-eared paperbacks. With two kids under two very soon I will indeed be lacking in free time, but perhaps part of being a book devotee is making time. There’s always time to read. At the very least, five-minute snippets in the bathroom (perhaps the only privacy a parent of young children ever gets, and even then…) promise the potential to read at least one book every, say, six months.

But what is the actual physical experience of reading like now? First of all, I skim. It’s hard to concentrate from sentence to sentence and make the connections between ideas, and I find myself re-reading paragraphs at times. Essentially I’ve become a little ADD when it comes to long-form storytelling.

So is it because of the Internet or because I’m an editor and a critic? As an editor I can’t help but notice the strings now: where authors are setting up plot pieces, building action, a Chekhov’s gun, the climax, the twist (and the foreshadowing of the twist). As a critic it’s my job to decide whether or not that was done effectively. But the key word there is job. My two worlds have collided, as what was once entertainment is now employment (even if it is just freelance). Whatever the cause, it's a noticeable change.

So can this condition be walked back? A few years ago I challenged myself to read Jane Eyre just because it was an older book, and that was a bit of a struggle. I wonder now if that was the start of my scattered brain, or just because it’s a bit stuffy by modern standards. But if I were to challenge myself again to just read a novel, should it be something I’m familiar with, like Stephen King, or something altogether different?

And that’s not even to say that I think I should disconnect. The Internet is an amazing tool, and I appreciate that in my lifetime I can say I experienced a pre- and post-Internet world. I’m not one of those that laments how kids used to go out and play, because I know I take my kid to the park to play all the time. That hasn’t changed, but I know with the way things are sped up it won’t be long before she jacks in like the console cowboys I used to read about. That doesn’t mean, however, that my daughters have to choose: they can have both books and the Internet.

As for me, I think I need to learn how to have fun again. I know the only way I can get a good night’s sleep is if I unwind before bed, and there’s no better way to do that than with a good book to hold in my hands.

So, any suggestions?

Bart Bishop

Column by Bart Bishop

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 8, 2016 - 8:41am

ditch your phone.

as for audiobooks, although I don't listen to them, they strike me as a reach back to the origins of storytelling, although there are the drawbacks mentioned.

I read physical books a lot (also on long commutes) and spend very little time at the screen (except typing for NaNoWriMo and skimming through the same handful of websites). I've actively resisted the digitization of everything, because a) I'm old and you durned kids, b) when I see a widespread trend, I tend to go the other way and explore things that are overlooked (I've never read or seen any of Harry Potter.), c) too expensive.

As part of the technological shift, many things have changed. There's little point in memorizing facts when they are easily available. So, giving up on physical books, reading Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon is unthinkable, and so it goes. There's no reason to extol the virtues of text over any other storytelling medium. It's one of many.

Now, where can I find a shadow-puppet website?

KateRose's picture
KateRose from Chicago is reading The Making of a Story November 9, 2016 - 10:13am

Reflections in your article are a balm today, especially given the online hyper-reaction to yesterday's election outcome. There's even higher drama than usual on social media which leads me straight back to your comments about holding physical books in hand instead of bouncing between all the screens. Seems physically and psychologically healthier, like going for a walk alone, with the kids, the dog, instead of. . . .streaming.

Agree with comment about ditching overly smart phones -- my spouse and I are strongly considering going back to minimalist cellphones. I think about the overwhelming number of games and special interest apps now toted around on one's person 24/7 and chuckle at what social humorist Fran Lebowitz (a perfectly happy digital luddite) called "pathological relaxation."

I do stand-up storytelling at public spots several times a year, so that's a medium that often, though not always, involves relaying a story to an audience without text. Doing it the old-fashioned way. And I still act in plays which requires -- horror of horrors -- memorization! My brain is older so memorizing does get harder by the year.

Now, where can I find a cool desktop theatre piece?

Cheers.