Reading in the Age of Interruption

Gulf Coast Online Editor

Apr 28, 2011

I normally wouldn't post to the Gulf Coast blog about a subject just recently addressed by another editor, but in this case, I'd like to do just that. Sort of. Earlier this week, Gulf Coast's editor, Ian Stansel, wrote about the effects that the reading of fiction might have on the human capacity for empathy. I was intrigued by his exploration of that idea and thought I'd like to take it a step further by examining the role that reading (of any kind, really) plays in contemporary society in general, and, perhaps especially, in our contemporary brains. I've been preparing recently to take one of my Ph.D. comprehensive exams - the final steps before a doctoral dissertation - on the subject of dystopian fiction. As a result, I've been reading and re-reading a number of fascinating books that examine what society might be like if our attempts (technological, cultural, and otherwise) to improve our world go horribly wrong, books like Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, among many others. All of this has gotten me thinking about whether or not our present society might be considered by someone from, say, the turn of the 20th C. to be an improvement or a deterioration of their own world. To be sure, positives abound today: Medical science has advanced immeasurably since that time, as have our abilities to travel and our understanding of the universe in general. In the United States, we've made great strides toward better cultural equality, even if we still have a way to go, and our technological ability to communicate has improved to such a degree that to correspond with someone on the other side of the globe takes mere milliseconds. Still, there are signs that at least some of our advances involve serious consequences. Last summer, I sat in a crowded movie theater to watch David Fincher's The Social Network, the film about Facebook's rise to prominence in the hands of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. As the film played, I could see what seemed like hundreds of tiny screens lighting up in the laps of other viewers. How many of those people, I wondered, were checking Facebook itself? Five years ago this month, Clive Thompson wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine about a new social phenomenon identified by scientists called "ambient awareness," in which social networkers experienced the online community as though they were actually within the proximity of hundreds (if not thousands) of other people. Via Facebook and Twitter status updates, for instance, social networking users were living life as though they were literally connecting, even physically, with more people simultaneously than they'd ever before had the ability to do. Anyone who uses social networking sites can understand the ways in which they've created new social spaces that had never previously existed. For instance, via Facebook, I maintain technological friendships with people I haven't seen in years, people who, prior to Facebook, may well have drifted out of my life entirely by now. Today, without even asking these friends directly, I can see where they live, what they enjoy, how many children they have, and even what they look like. Many of them live far away from me, but it doesn't matter. It's as though they might as well live right next door. I enjoy keeping up with my friends from long ago just as much as I do with the people I see every day, and so I appreciate this new social space. That said, the Facebook status feed, updating constantly each time someone adds new information, as well as the endless feed of thoughts from Twitter, is not conversation - not in the traditional sense, anyway. When I post something to Facebook or Twitter (or Tumblr or whatever), it's as though I'm standing in a crowded room and shouting just to see who'll listen and maybe even respond. And really, that's what we're all doing there: standing in a crowded room and shouting, not waiting for a break in the noise, almost completely unconcerned about who else might be speaking at the time. Some have speculated that this may be behind some of the relatively recent outbursts we've seen in public forums, including those that don't occur online (see Kanye West at the 2009 MTV VMA awards or Rep. Joe Wilson's reaction to President Obama's 2009 speech to congress about healthcare reform). Regardless of the cause of these particular events, though, one thing's for certain: In the contemporary United States, we're no strangers to interruption. The average quantity of television show time per hour has been reduced to about forty-two minutes over the past few decades. The remainder - almost a third of the hour - is filled with commercial advertisements. We watch long stretches of similar advertising before theatrical films begin, even prior to the preview trailers. Our roadsides are littered with signage meant to scream at us visually even as we barrel past it, and radio stations today rely so heavily on advertising time that most could not exist without nearly as much time spent advertising as on playing shows or music. I subscribe to several magazines (whose names I won't mention here) in which I've noticed lately an ad on almost every other page. There is no such thing in these periodicals as a long, unbroken story. This isn't to condemn advertising per se. It's just to say that to survive in the world we've now created, our brains must be hard-wired to accept a constant barrage of information from all sorts of sources, and then to be able to refasten as best they can to the larger task at hand, be that keeping up with the story of a television show or watching the road. Add to this the ubiquity of mobile telephones in cars and movies and elsewhere and½well, you get the idea. With all of this interruption, we risk developing what CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen calls "popcorn brain." We just don't have many spaces anymore in which to sit quietly, to relax our minds, and to focus deeply. We've begun almost to crave distraction. I'd like to offer one space, however, in which we still do have that ability to focus deeply and to avoid at least most of the modern interrupters that abound in our society. That space is in books. Unlike most other print media, books have yet to fall victim to blatant advertising, at least not in their pages (let's hope we never reach that point). Maybe that's part of the reason the publishing industry is in such dire straits today, but regardless, it's an aspect I believe that we should cherish, not only for its tradition but also for our own mental health. When I teach fiction writing classes, I tell my students that the moments I most enjoy while reading and the moments I'd most like to create for my own readers are those in which I forget that I'm holding a book at all, in which I actually lose myself in the moment of the story and begin to live it in my mind. (I realize that that's not every author's ambition, but it is mine.) The world around my body might be blazing with noise and distraction, but I don't sense any of that. I float beyond it and, instead, to someplace deep inside my mind, to where I'm led by the mind of someone else. When I have students who claim they've never enjoyed reading, I sometimes think it's because they've never felt that way before. They've never allowed themselves to get lost in a good story or poem, or perhaps the bee-loud world around them has simply prevented them from doing so. Perhaps they've become such creatures of distraction that they're no longer able or even willing to allow themselves to do merely one thing at a time. I wish so badly that I could introduce them to that joy, if even only once, since I think it reinforces the sort of empathy that Ian described in his own blog post earlier this week. By getting lost in a book, we get lost in the mind of another human being and begin the see the world and ourselves as we've never seen them before. We break out of the confines of our own minds, simply by traveling more deeply into them. We learn, in short, how to listen. But today, listening with our full attention seems increasingly difficult to do. A good friend of mine with whom I studied for my masters' degree wrote a thesis about books not being so much about their words or their stories, but rather as presenting "spaces for meditation." I think she's right, and I think that, at least in the West, they represent one of the few spaces for meditation we have left. Reading this way - deeply, lost in the page - may be a slowly dying art, but it's certainly one worth experiencing, especially for those who've never yet experienced it before. It's an art, really, that can carry over into the other aspects of our lives, helping us to better focus our attentions and to calm our anxieties, and it's one that, I believe, might even make us better people overall.