Books still matter. But the problem is that our attention spans are becoming blunt tools that can only crudely bang on information instead of handling it with a craftsman’s dexterity.
There’s a burgeoning lack of depth now intrinsic in popular culture and a prevalent lack of absorption that soon will lead us either to be culturally comatose or forcibly ignorant. I don’t want that, and neither should you.
I’m not telling you to go read a novel, although I highly recommend it. I’m just saying to recognize what is happening to our increasingly porous mental state. Reading has become burdensome when it should be indulgent, imaginative and transportive. Think about and notice the fact that the next time you open all 10 articles you want to read simultaneously in different tabs, your eyes will start to wander, and it is much harder to concentrate on the one piece at hand. Profitable reading is not conducive to multitasking. Your brain, although a powerful machine, is excitable in ways that are not always productive.
The internet is constantly begging for our attention, and due to its expansive and available nature, it leads our subconscious to be especially susceptible to distraction or shortened attention. We read the same way a college kid looks at a text from their parents —glancingly and non-deliberately. This has to do with a sort of on-to-the-next-thing mentality.
Basically, it is an impatience after a certain period of time with the words at hand and a fervid curiosity to read the next thing we’ll probably only end up skimming.
Nicolas Carr, in his novel “The Shallows,” a book about humanity’s dwindling attention span, sums this up well when he writes, “We were once scuba diver[s] in a sea of words, now we zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” This is to say technology has winnowed our collective tolerance down to a nub.
Our intellectualism is suffering. The only antibiotic I see is longer exposure to quality writing, because authors can quite literally transform our perception of the world with their words, forming in us a virtuous patience that can serve us invaluably.
Okay, now I’m saying it. Go read a novel.
Forget your silly preoccupation with the notion of outdatedness. You are not wasting your time. Good writing, to the chagrin of many, must be read at length. Why? To figure out if it’s actually any good. And also to grow with it, acclimate to it and connect with it.
Novels give us lengthy insight into the cognitive workings of our peers, and show us subtleties of human interaction that cannot be captured in any other medium.
But if that’s unconvincing, listen to this: worrying about remembering plot does not dictate if you have read profitably, so do not take a failure to remember plot points as a sweeping disincentive to ever re-up.
Sven Birkerts, American essayist and literary critic says, “If I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess I have read nothing at all.” The point of literature is to immerse the reader in the writer’s world of language, and to construct a sort of rounded intelligence that isn’t so much detail-oriented as it is concept-conscious.
To parrot Jose Ortega’s famous aphorism, “culture is what remains…” not plot, not the entirety of “War and Peace, but bright flashes of memory, vestiges of a writer’s intelligence and a slightly more cosmic understanding of the worlds in and around us.