We like to hope that this blog might change what you think, but Nicholas Carr has a theory that it might change how you think too. In the cover article of the Atlantic Monthly , of which Arts & Letters Daily reminded me, he asks whether our style of reading has changed our style of thinking, and if so, how. Once upon a time Carr read books, and he read them slowly and carefully. Now he quickly skims more material on the internet. And he’s noticed that more than his reading habits have changed:
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 goingso far as I can tellbut 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 . . . .
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 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.
Since coming to First Things , I’ve spent my days reading many more articles and blogs than I did in college. But I don’t sense any change in my thought patterns, although that may be because I learned how to think with the internet already in play. Instead, I’ve noticed that reading lots of articles online and in print every day has honed my ability to skim. It’s also taught me to save deep reading for what really interests me. But when a piece comes along that does grip me, I don’t perceive any greater difficulty in my ability to soak it in and mull it over.
It makes me wonder if this is a generational thing. Have any of our professor contributors noticed differences in the reading and thinking habits of their students over time?