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Thursday, 10 June 2010

How We Read Online

The Internet Diet Nicholas Carr is a sane guide to how it's changing us.

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.

In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind. He begins with a feeling shared by many who have spent the last decade online. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," Carr tells us. "I feel it most strongly when I'm reading." He relates how he gets fidgety with a long text. Like others, he suspects that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply. "My brain," he writes, "wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it."

As Carr embarks, though, he has a firm grip on his brain, admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny. He's self-conscious about its Luddite and alarmist spirit and steps back to take the long view. The Internet, he observes, is "best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind." It's similar to other "intellectual technologies" that have reshaped our activities and culture.

By equating the impact of the Internet with the impact of such things as the printing press, Carr is trying to move the whole "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument forward. This Web is seismic. It's definitely changing us somehow. Instead of debating whether it's turning us into distractible oafs or a superintelligent collective, let's first look back into history and see how humans have responded to similar transitions. Then, let's see whether the new tools of neuroscience can detect any effects of our current transition.

The same anxieties that we have about the Internet, the ancient Greeks had about the new technology of writing. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates famously declare that poetry has no place in the perfect state. As Carr explains, this attack may seem a little out-of-nowhere unless you understand that poetry was Plato's stand-in for the oral tradition of Greek thought. Epic poems like The Iliad were how the Greeks preserved and passed on knowledge from one generation to the next. Plato is arguing that the new technology of writing is superior because it allows for a more ordered and logical transmission of knowledge. Also, you don't have to repeat stuff a hundred times.

Literacy won out, but each new technology gives something and takes something away. The scholar Walter J. Ong looks at oral cultures and sees "verbal performances of high artistic and human worth" that are lost forever in the transition to literacy. But without literacy, he argues, there's no science, no history, no philosophy.

At first, books did not have any spaces between the words, and required a lot of work to understand. They were typically read out loud, and those who could read silently to themselves, like Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, were viewed with amazement. Eventually, punctuation marks and spaces between the words eased the "cognitive burden" of reading. The "deep reader" was born. Readers trained themselves to ignore their surroundings (countering our evolution, which encourages wariness) and to focus on a text. Writers responded to this new reader. "The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and logic," Carr explains. Private carrels were built in libraries; reference books sprang up to help the solo reader.

The next earthquake was Gutenberg's printing press. Early booksellers were often seen as agents of Satan, so stunned were people by the sudden appearance of formerly rare and precious volumes. (And at such low prices! Kind of like Amazon.) In a virtuous feedback loop, the public became more literate as more books circulated. The sensitive among us began to complain of information overload. The melancholy Robert Burton had this to say: "We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning." Yet books were a hit, a convenient way to reference important information and to learn about the latest ideas. Naturally, there was a fair amount of pornography and trashy stuff floating around, too.

The literary mind began its centuries-long rule. Scientists, authors, politicians, crackpots, and poets could all assume the same basic thing: attentive, book-trained minds would be willing and able to follow their complex arguments and plots.

Carr arrives at the Internet era armed with the latest brain science. I think that science makes him a little too confident in assessing our current moment and less willing to look outside the lab for real-world effects. Brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise. Biologists and neurologists assumed for a long time that the structure of the adult brain never changed. In the late 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered that a monkey could remap its brain—a result that was later confirmed in humans. The current theory is that our brains are constantly changing in response to everyday experiences and circumstances.

On the one hand, the fact of our "massively plastic" brains should make us optimistic about our ability to adapt in the face of our own technology. We'll take advantage of opportunities (the spurs to thought supplied by literacy) and work around the losses (the ability to concentrate deeply on a task). On the other hand, we can worry that the rewiring now under way might be exacting too steep a price. Is the kind of brain that engages in deep reading and mindful contemplation like a dying salmon swimming upstream with no chance of finding a mate? "When we go online," Carr writes, "we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."

Carr's argument is based on the work of scientists studying online reading and brain researchers studying memory and attention. One big problem seems to be hyperlinks. The foundation of the Web acts like a road bump in a sentence. A link causes us to stop reading and evaluate whether or not to click on it—activating the decision-making pockets of our mind. Books present a more passive environment, letting the mind concentrate on the words instead of constantly being on the lookout for new, possibly better words. Carr sums it up this way: "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that's the intellectual environment of the Internet."

So what if we are a little distracted? Maybe the Internet is helping us develop new minds, ones that can quickly process and evaluate information in short, directed bursts of attention. Thinkers like Tyler Cowen have argued along these lines. I may not be able to drink deeply of Proust like I used to, but I collect information from a diverse range of sources and am more informed about the things that I care about than I have ever been before. This is where I salute the genius of Carr's title, The Shallows. It's not that we aren't learning things when we scan our sites and feeds, he argues; it's that we are missing out on making the kind of deeper connections of which we were once more capable. We are splashing about in the shallows.

The problem isn't necessarily that the information online is of poorer quality than the information found in books or conversation. The trouble is that we are consuming it in a state of distraction. Carr quotes the neuroscientist Jordan Grafman: "Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness?" The studies show that when we try to do two things at once, the attention given to both activities lessens, and we do each more carelessly. Doing more multitasking doesn't mean getting better at doing two things at once; it means continuing to do many things more poorly.

The literary mind was a mind that could pay attention, and attention turns out to be a cornerstone of memory. With our plastic minds, part of learning is converting our working memory (what you are using to read right now) into long-term memory (what was that Carr book about again?). Carr points to research that suggests it's attention that determines what we remember: "The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory." If we are only paying half-attention, if we are distracted by all of the buzzes and dings on our computers, or if we don't bother to pay attention at all because we can just Google it later, we are losing a chance to build lasting connections in our minds. Connections that might one day mingle and mesh in ways that we don't understand, connections that would allow us to frame the world differently or come up with a new solution.

Carr acknowledges throughout The Shallows that it's neither possible nor preferable to rewind technology. He loves his RSS feed as much as the next guy. But because Carr is someone who grew up in the linear, literary mind-set, he's trying to capture the virtues of our "old brains" before they become even more of a rarity. It's tempting to feel he's worrying too much. You may lose an afternoon to pointless Web surfing, but not an entire mind-set. But here I am, making an extreme argument again, when what Carr is saying is actually quite measured and cautious. The Internet is changing us, changing our culture. Perhaps some of these lab experiments are detecting the initial effects of this change. Maybe we're more distractible, more frenzied, less able to concentrate. Maybe these mental tics are part of the turbulence of the transition, a pocket of air as we soar to ever higher intellectual heights. Maybe they aren't.

Whatever our destination, Carr would have us reserve a place for attentive thinking. For to judge by history, he is being not an alarmist but a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign. When that happens, our culture will lose something ineffable. And we're likely to have forgotten what it is or was.

Unwritten Novels - Doris Lessing

I like to imagine that I am reading a piece headed ‘Unwritten Novels’:

Just sent for review, a parcel of reprints of neglected Victorian novels, each of unique interest and illuminating, as only literature can, areas of 19th-century life known hitherto only to historians. (It was a historian who said: ‘It is to the glory of the novelists, and the shame of the historians, that it is the former who have written the novels which present the past to the common reader.’) John Mercury is an exciting tale about those men who, risking transportation and prison, smuggled on carts and mail coaches, then up and down the railways, batches of pamphlets, broadsheets, newsheets, all clandestinely printed or copied out by hand – the ‘alternative press’ of those days, a 19th-century English samizdat – about the lives and conditions of workers and their families, their aspirations for a better life. The New Jerusalem Maker is a psychological novel about a group of Chartists who live for the future, their own present comfort neglected, in an intense interaction, inspired by the fumey influences of Shelley, Byron and Blake. The charismatic Charles Hoop, orator and visionary, compels men, women and children into his orbit, not always to their benefit. Dame Betty: Her School tells how the widow of an Army captain, left destitute, taught the neighbours’ children in her tiny cottage in Spitalfields. The story is written by one of her pupils, a grown woman, when this and similar schools were closed in favour of compulsory state education. The room where the children – many of whom turned out to be remarkable – were taught was described in the inspector’s report as ‘damp, insanitary and ill-equipped.’ The Shadow Running. This country was host to revolutionaries from all over Europe, always on the move, outwitting the Police and Home Office spies, smuggling letters, pamphlets, instructions. This shadow world of intrigue and passion (revolution was ever a begetter of sexual intensity) and the type of person who later, with the coming of ‘the media’ would be terrorists, will be found instructive by the authorities even now. This novel foreshadows Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Not to be missed. Divas of the Divan, based on an exchange of letters between Florence Nightingale’s doctor and the explorer Isabella Bird’s doctors, throws light on how clever women suffering from the miseries and frustrations of middle-class Victorian life used invalidism, often consciously, but even more interestingly, unconsciously, to protect their vulnerabilities and nurse their talents; ‘The Psychopathology of the Sofa’ is the subtitle. A Butterfly Under a Stone by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She and her sisters, unknown to her father, brothers and later, her husband, befriended a poor girl dying of tuberculosis in ‘The Rookeries’, which were, after all, not a mile from their house. This fine and compassionate novel was the result.

Unfortunately these novels and a thousand others were never written. Why not?

There are some subjects it is almost impossible to believe have never found a novelist. How about Marx’s household? It was a composite of Victorian dramatic stereotypes: the illegitimate child by the servant, the set-aside wife, mysterious and conspiratorial visitors, reprehensible relatives and the noble-minded philanthropic benefactor. And the exploited, suffering daughter. There is Kapp’s biography of Eleanor, letters, history books. No novel – though Marx’s deplorable son-in-law appears in The Doctor’s Dilemma, I think, and he apparently inspired Meredith’s The Tragic Comedians, that dry, urbane, witty, grown-up tale about revolutionary politics in Europe. Out-of-print. I wonder why?

I first began to brood about unwritten novels in the late Fifties, after the Twentieth Congress. (Everyone over a certain age will know what I mean: youngsters, even the politically minded, ask, what was that?) I knew I had lived through an extraordinary time, but now it was over. What had ended was a political atmosphere – and this is always impossible to describe to later people, who are living in a different, equally compelling atmosphere, nearly always inimical to the first. (In the last few weeks we have seen a similar sudden change, one that no one foresaw, and the way we all thought so recently will rapidly seem improbable. Young ones are already asking their elders: ‘How was it possible you did that?’) What I looked back on – 1941, the date of Russia entering the war – was a fever, a ferment, an intoxication, every possible social idea up for grabs, from feminism to communal living, all based – and in areas that extended far beyond the Communist Party – on a goody-and-baddy scenario: the Soviet Union was good, everyone else, bad. The further I get away from that stretch of years, the more of a lunacy it seems, a paranoia essenced – but that is false memory trying to instal itself, trying to discount the atmosphere of then, which is the whole point. What I particularly wanted to know was: had this kind of thing happened before? How nice to read a novel about the men and women of the Communist movement before 1905, when they split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The personal dislocations must have left everyone scarred. Or why not a novel about the Chartists, the flesh-and-blood stuff, not the propaganda: I had already observed how the (small) historical events of which I had been part had frozen into tidy stories that tended to leave out certain people and events, often the key ones, as if these had about them something abrasive and raw and itchy that could not be included. And the atmosphere that had made everything possible had evaporated. There were whole tracts of the 19th century that literature hadn’t covered at all, though Dickens and Hardy and Meredith between them had done a good deal. Well, I would write a novel that would convey the atmosphere, the taste and the feel of the politics of a certain time. Roll on the decades, and they are setting The Golden Notebook in history and politics classes, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

But why the missing books? The most surprising lacunae are in the Second World War. Hundreds and thousands of women were in uniform, drove vehicles, worked on the land and in Intelligence and in offices. They made munitions, cooked in canteens, suffered the Blitz. (Or enjoyed it. One old woman said: It made a nice change.) Where is The Landgirl and Luigi (after Lawrence), where the novel about the icy run to Murmansk, or the Battle of the Atlantic – where we nearly lost the war – told by the sensitive young officer later sunk in the Repulse in the Pacific, and picked out of the water to fight again in the Med? Where the novel, rather than the memoirs, of the POW camps in Germany, the internment camps in Southern Rhodesia, Australia (the latter housing improbable mixes of fascists and antifascists boxed up together for the duration). In the Second World War camps to train pilots were set up in Southern Rhodesia (at least ten of them) Kenya, Australia, Canada, South Africa. This meant moving – how many men? Millions? – on ships pursued, and sometimes sunk, by submarines, meant building camps like towns – but all-male – in countries that often struck these involuntary tourists as unlikeable or – sometimes – as politically oppressive as the countries we were fighting. I know that is how Southern Rhodesia seemed to many men of the Air Force. All this was an extraordinary feat of organisation. Has anything like it ever happened before? Yet people have forgotten all about these camps, these men. They are not in literature, except, glancingly, in my Children of Violence. The fate of the ground crew – the men who serviced the aircraft and ran the camps, and stayed put, sometimes for years – was to be bored. Boredom is conducive to the production of literature. But no, nothing, not a word. Where are the novels about the Second Front in Europe, Dunkirk, the evacuation of Singapore, the war in Burma (Yes, India did all right), the war in North Africa, Army camps in Britain? Very well, let’s look at what we have. Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy, about combatants; Olivia Manning’s trilogies, mostly about civilians dodging death, deportation or destitution while contending armies reel back and forth. Alexander Baron’s From the City, from the Plough. The Cruel Sea. Sharp, sardonic sketches, in New Writing, Shaving through the Blitz, by one Fanfarlo. Fragments of verse remain, none as sharp or as painful as Brooke’s, or Sassoon’s or Owen’s.

Dark angel who art clear and straight
As cannon shining in the air
Thy blackness doth invade my mind
And thunderous as the armoured wind
That rains on Europe
Is thy hair.

(Was there really such a poem?) Prokosch wrote an intensely romantic novel set in Lisbon, that clearing-house for spies. Have I left much out? I don’t think so. Where is our equivalent of Elsa Morante’s History, that marvellous novel that says everything about what it was like in Italy during World War Two? No, Britain was not invaded, but was bouleversed, changed for ever. Very few British people (or Americans) were actually killed, but millions were shifted from one part of the country to another, from one country to another, from continent to continent. Civilians were involved, for the first time ...

Are we approaching that perennial theme, the Sensibility of the Writer – not everybody’s favourite?

A clue or two. A few years ago I was invited to address a gathering of industrialists and business people in Toronto. I was intrigued: it appeared that the wife of that year’s chairman had suggested a writer might make a nice change for the weekly get-together. Several hundred people, a third of them women, had turned up. One point I made was that it is literature, not history, which has created a map of this or that society. (I was talking about the novel not from an aesthetic point of view, but as information: for instance, a businessman friend of mine, when he is sent off to some new town or country, goes to the library for all the novels from there. That’s where you learn what a place is like, says he, not from blueprints and pamphlets.) We all know about pre-revolutionary Russia because of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and the rest. Up got a businessman, a prominent one, it seems, to make the point that before the Revolution in Russia an industrial revolution was well under way, but it nowhere appears in literature. Our view of that Russia is entirely created by intellectuals, not one of whom, not even Gorki, had anything to do with manufacture or industry. I was naturally delighted that this point was being made by a capitalist, and not by the Canadian equivalent of Comrade Len, Lit. Sec. of the Marxist-Socialist-Revolutionary Party of West Ealing.

Another point: why do people engaged in business and industry, the engine of all the world’s societies, capitalist, socialist – and, now, Communist – never write novels? You can hardly think of a serious novel about the machinations in the committee rooms, the clandestine struggles to steal technology, the arms trade, the men who build dams and pipelines, the international conferences where the destinies of nations are decided, let alone the day-to-day being in an office which is the lot of millions. (Yes, Something happened... Heller). Was it, I wondered aloud, that the aristocratic disdain for business (still alive and well, so I’m told, in this country) has percolated down to the intellectuals (sorry, shorthand) of this country, and then, somehow, to this country’s ex-colonies? There are levels of society in Britain, including some of the most socially aware people, where it is enough to mention ‘business’ or ‘businessman’ to see delicate little moues – of distaste, imaginary skirts being drawn aside. Not so in America, where some people have to make regular visits just to get some relief from all these genteel sensibilities.

Why, I enquired, did not the members of this distinguished audience go off and write novels about their fascinating lives? One after another got to their feet, to say they indeed cherished dreams of writing novels, but it had not occurred to any of them that their business lives were interesting. One man confessed that when he retired he would write about his teenage passion for the girl next door, for this had coloured his life. Another planned something like A Sportsman’s Sketches about his hunting trips with his dog. A woman said she would write about her recent divorce and the consequent psychoanalysis.

If that enquiring sociologist from Mars (or from one of Jupiter’s moons) decided to use the good literature of the last three hundred years as a map of our societies, the 18th century would be fairly well-chartered, but the gaps would be serious in the 19th – and you could read all of 20th-century novels and never suspect that it is trade that makes the world go round. Bad literature – yes, comics, airport literature – but that’s a different matter and a different article.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Billy Collins: The Quaintness of the Past

The Quaintness of the Past

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Billy Collins read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.


I turn the page of a magazine
and find a black-and-white photograph
of a roadhouse taken in the 1950s,
an old clapboard affair
with a car of that vintage,
maybe a Plymouth, parked in front.

It is almost enough to inspire me
to take a snapshot of something around here
first thing in the morning,
maybe the little bakery down the street
where I often go for coffee and a muffin
and the big city paper
and the French girls behind the counter.

Ideally there would be a few modern cars
parked in front,
then all I would have to do
is walk back home and wait 50 or 100 years
for the photograph to become a thing of interest and value.

Of course, I will be long gone by then
and time will have marched on,
though I never think of time as marching
down a football field blowing a trumpet
or into a city square
with a rifle on its shoulder.

I picture time advancing more slowly
up a mountain, leaving
all the moments of history behind
like climbers who have to leave behind
one of their companions on a cold glacial slope.

And sometimes, decades later,
the body is discovered,
the ice is chipped away, and we get to see
a photograph of the remains—
the bones of the hands arthritically
fisted up, the jaw locked tight,
a skull wearing a woolen cap,
the man quaintly smiling out at us from the past
before we wet a finger and turn the page.

Alex Reads Twilight

I love this guy. Follow him - and his haircut - as he reads Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. Just really engaging - and the only way I will ever get through this book.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

David Means: The Spot

David Means' fourth collection, The Spot, is new out. There are writers you wait to hear from, and writers you track through periodicals and websites: David Means is one such - and it's not the easiest name to track through Google.

The first story is 'The Knocking', originally printed in The New Yorker, in which a man is plagued by a noisy neighbour and (in brackets) the demise of his own marriage, is a monologue, even a rant - a beautifully cadenced rant that runs from a pathological obsession to near hysteria only to return again and again to resignation and to reverie.

Could more be made of it than a writerly exercise? Yes, it has that feel, but what redeems it, and redeems all Means's work, even the most brutal, is its tenderness, and even as an exercise it shows how match fit the prose is, fascinatingly auditory not only in what it chooses to describe but in its diction and syntax.
Imaginative capacities gather around the knock. A hammer against a nail, sharp and determined, goes on a beat too long, pounding and pounding throughout an entire evening, with metronomic precision. The rounded edge of a sap—lead in leather—is slapped against the floorboards overhead, making a blunt rubbery thud with a leathery overtone. A sharp metallic tap, not too loud and not too soft, comes out from under the casual noise of a summer afternoon—the roar of traffic on Fifth combined with high-heeled taps, taxi horns, and the murmur of voices—with a hauntingly pristine quality, like the tin tip of a walking stick. A sweeping sound stretches from one side of the head to the other, arriving one afternoon . . . Again, many of these knockings come late in the day, when he knows, because he does know, that I’m in my deepest state of reverie, trying to ponder—what else can one do!—the nature of my sadness in relation to my past actions, throwing out, silently, wordlessly, my theorems: Love is a blank senseless vibration that, when picked up by another soul, begins to form something that feels eternal (like our marriage) and then tapers and thins and becomes wispy, barely audible (the penultimate days in the house by the Hudson), and then is, finally, nothing but air unable to move anything (the deep persistent silence of loss; Mary gone, kids gone).

The prose savours sound even as the narrator savours the pained memories of his failed marriage - just as we all secretly savour the complaints we make against those who disappoint or do us wrong, and how we permit incomprehension and a sense of victimhood to goad us almost into ecstasy.

The story is one long complaint and complaint - which means to express a grievance but also a mourning, an outcry of grief , a yearning for lost love- here becomes a prayer, even a hymn.

To complain means also to groan and creak as a mast - and the narrator is islanded in his Manhatten flat -which makes me think how Melville also haunts this prose. I never want David Means to write a novel - and not one the size of Moby Dick - his commitment to the short story form is admirable and, to this reader, necessary - but something akin to a Billy Budd is within his register and his reach.

But then not enough is said about the future books or stories we imagine might come from a favourite writer. David Thomson is well practiced in expressing how we dream other movies, other combinations of stars in favourite films, how, in reading a novel, we cast and direct a future adaptation. We do it, too, with books we have yet to read and ones we can have no reasonable expectation of reading. You find me, having already read this first story and three others in magazines, staving off reading anymore today, imagining what the other nine might be so I can compare my dream of them with printed reality.