In the most recent American Scholar, Sven Birkerts offers an impassioned defense for the value of reading novels in this age of ever-more-fractured attention. Birkerts is not talking about a scattershot, read-a-few-lines-before-checking-your-email approach. He means the sink-down-in-an-armchair-and-lose-yourself-in-a-book method, which used to be much easier to achieve when we weren't so distractable. In making the case Birkerts offers an inevitable shout-out to Nicholas Carr's 2008 Atlantic piece about whether Google's making us stupid.
As Birkerts notes, a big theme of Carr's piece was that the Internet, in decreasing our attention spans, is actually rewiring our brains. Birkerts sums up the latest consensus in neuropsychology, which is that there may be no "mind" independent of the chemical jigglings of our brains. All of our highest impulses--towards art, towards literature, towards the divine--might just be chemically enhanced experiences. A rather sobering insight for an old-line humanist like Birkerts, or even an everyday English major like me.
Well, maybe. But maybe this is no big deal. After all, humanity survived the shock of learning that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice versa. If all we are is a bunch of chemicals firing across synapses, then thank God some of those chemicals aim high. I'm really not all that concerned, but I do worry about my own increasing difficulty with sinking down into a good book.
For reading novels, deeply and lovingly, still offers its own rewards. Let Sven teach us: "I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading, more than anything else I do, parallels—and thereby tunes up, accentuates—my own inner life..."
Some people meditate, others read. But to reach that contemplative readerly state, it's best to stow away the smart phone and close the laptop. We can have the best of old and new media if we want to; this isn't a zero sum game.