Monday, June 07, 2010

Computers, you, and books

Somewhat distressing, but not altogether unexpected, bit of news today from the New York Times

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

But, maybe there is hope. Check this out from the Chicago Tribune

A friend of mine in her early 20s managed to poke a finger through the tissue-thin argument that iPads, Kindles and Nooks are just as good as books, that reading is reading, that content is all that matters.

She and her classmates at the University of Notre Dame were invited to the home of a revered professor. It was a gleaming palace of erudition, she said: Room after room was filled with elegant floor-to-ceiling bookcases; each bookcase was filled with beautiful volumes; each volume seemed to glow with the written legacy of the world's wisdom.

It was, she recalled, breathtaking.

Reveling in all of this, my friend had a sudden, unsettling thought: What if, instead of the soaring bookcases, the professor's home had featured a card table with a Kindle on it?

The content might be the same — vast storage capacity is one of the chief selling points of new technologies — but how different it would be in terms of spiritual sustenance.

I'm glad that this anecdote comes from an undergraduate, because if it emerged from a creaky old coot — e.g., me — you'd dismiss it as the ill-tempered rant of a curmudgeon who needs to double up on the Advil and the Benefiber. The truth is, however, that many people, regardless of age, are feeling nostalgic these days for book culture.

<idle musing>
Of course, if their brains have been rewired by too much Internet, what good will all the books do? Ah well, progress has always been a mixed bag...
</idle musing>


Tim Bulkeley said...

I've loved books, all sorts and conditions of book, for at least sixty years now. But, there are increasingly few books I am willing to fetishise. Some because this particular tome has memories, like the copy of Just So Stories my father read to me, some because the physical production is just so beautiful... But such volumes are rare, and becoming less commonly available and at a higher relative price. I notice that even renowned bibliophile Jim West hesitates before the cost of Brill's handsome volumes...

The issue, as always, seems to me to be not the format of books, but the forming of readers. That requires not the rants of creaky old curmudgeons, but the time and energy influential parents and grandparents (or those temporarily, perhaps, in loco).

Tim Bulkeley said...

PS I do not mean that either you or the person you quote is a curmudgeon, but I do think you may resemble the King Canute of fame and fable ;)

The real job is reading to small children who then learn to want to read, whether on Kindle or spindle matters much less than the simple desire!

jps said...


Definitely agree with you. We read to our kids from the time they were newborns; both of them still love to read.

I also don't really care about the format; I prefer physical books, but have read many books on screens.


Christopher Heard said...

If I had the luxury of living in a gleaming palace of erudition with elegant floor-to-ceiling bookcases, I'd surely fill them up. But I don't. Every inch of bookshelf space in my house is filled, mostly with books but some with family photos. There's no room for more, not without giving up beds or creating some really unsightly rooms. Digital books are, for me, a very practical solution to a very practical problem. Plus, I can carry my digital books with me all sorts of places that my bookshelf just won't fit (an airplane, for example).