Are Computers Rewiring Our Brain, Making Books Obsolete? (Survey)

kobo reader tomatoland image

My summer reading: Tomatoland on a Kobo

In one of those jinx coincidences, while Mat was writing "I'm a confirmed bibliophile and happily admit that digital books and e-readers have zero appeal to me--in large part because I already spend too much time online due to my profession", I was reading Is this the end for books? in the Guardian. Sam Leith makes the point that what is killing the book might not be the technology we read on, but the way that we read. Thanks to our computers and the way we multi-task on them, many people are actually losing the ability to concentrate on a single thing at a time, such as reading a book.

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Image credit Daquella Manera

On the wonderful CBC program Spark, Nora Young talked to Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who says that using the internet and "chronic media multi-tasking" is actually rewiring our brains. "They're suckers for irrelevancy," he says."Everything distracts them."

Author Nicholas Carr claims that we are losing our ability to concentrate, to pay attention to a book. "My mind wants to continue working the way it did on the computer, jumping around."

Show host Nora Young admits that she cannot read a book any more. (Listen to the ten minute segment here)

Back at the Guardian, Sam Leith writes:

A defining characteristic of digital culture is that it divides the attention. That has become a fact about the texture of our lives. We experience anxiety, fragmentation, semiotic overload. It seems logical to conclude, in that case, that books - particularly fiction - will not just be read in such an environment; they will also seek to reflect it.

Already, there's evidence of this. If it really were the case that our attention spans are shortening, you might expect to see a wholesale revival of interest in short stories, or even lyric poems, and a tendency for full-length books to shrink. But we're not seeing that. Instead we're seeing Wolf Hall, Fingersmith, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Corrections, Underworld, Infinite Jest, Tree of Smoke, and fat Stephen King after fat Stephen King.

That may be the case, but they may also may be the last gasp. Amazon is now selling "Kindle Singles", specially commissioned pieces that are shorter than a conventional book but longer than a magazine story. This addresses both the short attention spans, and the advantage of the medium; bookstores sell books, not pamphlets. Leith calls traditional book a "cultural artifact"- it really is a product of the medium.

Most novels, for example, have 300-350 B-format (ie standard paperback) pages. Deviate from this format drastically and your novel won't make it to the front tables of the bookshop. This means relatively few publishers do; and, in turn, the literary culture is shaped by that.

McLuhan was right; the medium is the message. Other countries demonstrate how the medium is changing; In Japan, four out of five top literary bestsellers are keitai shosetsu or "cellphone novels, composed on mobile phones and posted to media-sharing sites before being published in hardback."

kelly summer reading photo

My wife's summer reading

I am much like Nora Young of Spark; I find it hard to concentrate on a book anymore, and have spent almost a week trying to get through a very slender Tomatoland. My wife Kelly, on the other hand, will happily sit with book all day and does.

What about you?

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