Requiem for a Heavyweight
by Will Dendis
December 02, 2010 02:28 PM | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As I walked through the renovated and expanded (though not quite done) Saugerties Public Library building this week, I tried to imagine the shelves upon shelves of books that would soon occupy the space. But I couldn’t help but think of those books, in storage for over a year now, as so many Rip Van Winkles. Though their hibernation was brief, they will awaken in a shiny new building, surrounded by computers and other media, an altogether different world.

It’s because I’m reading Nicholas Carr's “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. Carr's book examines the effect spending nearly 20 hours online every week and sending and receiving hundreds of text messages every month is having on our brains (average numbers), concluding that the constant stimulus actually rewires our brains. The result? It’s harder and harder to sit down and concentrate on a single task for hours at a time.

In other words: is Google making us stupid?

Carr, an early adopter of blogs, RSS feeds and social media, writes about his own difficulty reading long books he used to plow through. His friends are having the same problem. He talks to English professors who can’t get students to do the required reading. One of his subjects says the days of people reading “War and Peace” are over, and good riddance — the book takes forever to read, a relic of the pre-technological dark ages, when people had no other choice for entertainment.

The sections about the charm of the book are wistful, particularly his image of a dusty old tome in the basement of an ancient library, sitting there, maybe for years—maybe for decades—waiting for its reader. But Carr takes a measured approach, pointing out that there were those who feared Gutenberg’s press would destroy our memory. To some degree, those fears have been realized, if we are to believe that once upon a time people could recite epic poems, thousands of lines in length, by memory. But we certainly got something better in return: the literary mind, capable of a previously untapped degree of internal deliberation, concentration, research and imagination. Computers have the potential to improve our access to information, but will we evolve to be better processors of this data, or will be grow more and more distracted? Carr doesn’t know.

When the new Saugerties library opens its doors Jan. 29, it will be hard not to think of this. Though the books will occupy most of the floor space, I’ll wager the shiny new Dells will be more popular.

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