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Thursday, October 25, 2012
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Books have had a hearty history and have withstood many distractions throughout time. Early in the 19th century, newspapers threatened to make books obsolete as the latest and greatest news hit the headlines. Later, Thomas Edison’s phonograph caused many to fear that readers would become listeners. TV and movies, likewise, competed for our time in providing information and entertainment. Books, however, have remained steadfast in the culture…but for how long?
Looking around us, we see that books themselves still have a prominent place in society. But the way they are being read is changing at breathtaking speed. The convenience and glamour of Internet, e-books and electronic gadgets is not only luring the younger generation into their web, my peers are heavily trapped as well. Google has become our go-to for all information. We can carry thousands of books on our Kindles accessible to us at any time. But aren’t e-books just like regular books in digital form? Well…no.
Chapter 6 of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr quotes Steven Johnson:
"The book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write, and sell books in profound ways. I fear that one of the great joys of book reading - the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas - will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there." (pg. 103)
Carr relates an article written by Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Writing about her experience of reading Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens on her Kindle, she says:
"Although mildly disorienting at first, I quickly adjusted to the Kindle's screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, 'Mugby Junction.' Twenty minutes later I still hadn't returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle." (pg. 103)
Her experience is common. Distractions of hyperlinks, behind the scenes extras, videos and social interactions take us far from the text itself to create a dynamic “enhanced” experience.
But isn’t this a good thing? If the medium is enhanced, won’t we learn more? Won’t our brains be enhanced as well? Good questions…that we’ll answer next time.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
I thought it would be beneficial to begin our discussion of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains with a new twist on an old history lesson. We all know that stories were primarily passed down orally until Gutenberg’s printing press put books and reading into the mainstream. It wasn’t until around the Middle Ages that written language grew steadily and the availability of books and, as a result, the number of literate people increased.
As an aside, Thamus and Socrates believed that the written language would be detrimental to knowledge, wisdom and memory. Thamus wrote, “It will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” (pgs. 54-55) This fear was misplaced, of course. As Erasmus stated, the passages found in books were as “kinds of flowers, which, plucked from the pages of books, could be preserved in the pages of memory. (pg. 178) It is through the pages of books that we are able to process deeply and personally understand and relate to our reading.
Early writing was a continuous line of characters (can you imagine!) but by the 13th century, scribes had begun imposing rules on word order as well as dividing words and sentences by spaces and punctuation. At this point readers became not only more efficient but also more attentive.
Our natural inclination is to be highly distracted by outside stimuli. But “to read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.” (pg. 64) “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.” (pg. 65)
Imagine the effects on the brain itself. Learning to read is not a natural act. It’s much like playing the violin. Our minds have to be taught to translate the symbols we see into language we understand. This requires massive neurological wiring. It was interesting to me to learn that the mental circuitry for reading Chinese is vastly different from those reading a phonetic alphabet. That probably explains why my Chinese son, who was adopted at the age of 6, struggled with reading English for two years even though he could speak the language fluently. Think of the rewiring that had to happen in his little brain!
This topic of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change as a result of stimuli, is a fascinating testament to our Creator’s hand. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. However, because of this marvelous ability of our brains, we have the responsibility to see that we are choosing the good things. As we continue to look at the effects of our habits on our brains as it applies to reading, I pray we will consciously guard our minds for the glory of God.