Saturday, July 5, 2008

Two Atlantic Essays

Nicholas Carr has an essay in the new Atlantic speculating that the internet is changing our brains. No doubt it is. As he says in his article, technologies do that: the printing press, the word processor. Still, his argument is pretty thin. He and his friends, he says, don't like to read long stuff anymore, and he thinks it has to do with the fact that he spends so much time surfing the internet. Though he doesn't say it outright, I suspect he's talking mainly about novels, though he includes long articles in his claim. His friend says, "I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader." A little webstalking reveals that Carr, too, was an English major. I found his picture as well, and he appears to be in his forties.

Could it be that Carr and his cronies just don't have the time, patience, and imaginative muscles for fiction anymore? I can't tell you how many people I know who've hit their forties and decide they just don't like novels as much as they used to. This was happening before the internet, so it could be just an age and life-stage thing. As you get older and live a little, what seemed new and original in many novels now seems obvious and trite. I still love fiction, but I have less and less tolerance for unbrilliant fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, the same goes for some nonfiction: after decades of heavy reading, you see the same old arguments, the same clever moves. Carr says all he does these days is skim, just like he does on the internet. But that's probably all he needs to do -- just get the main points -- because the other stuff he's seen before.

Anyway, as I said, I don't disagree that the internet is probably changing the way we think. It probably is, but I don't think it's turning us all into shallow idiots, or at least not to a huge degree. I suspect its effects are subtler and not entirely negative.

Part of what's going on with Carr, and with a lot of the "Western Civilization is being killed by the bloggers/internet/social networking sites!" stuff is just the democratization of the culture. If you do all your reading at the library and in professional journals, it's easy to avoid the idiocy of others. The internet seems shallow because everyone has an equal voice, and hate to say it, but some of those voices are shallow. But there's good, deep, interesting thinking going on, too, and Carr hasn't proven to me that there's anything intrinsic to the medium that prevents good thinking.

The other essay I wanted to mention is Sandra Tsing Loh's critique of that feminist(?) book that came out a little while back, Linda Hirshman's Get to Work!... And Get a Life, Before It's Too Late. (I really like Sandra Tsing Loh's humorous, light, self-deprecating personal essays, but I don't think the style translates well to more serious topics. This article is rather too self-consciously "funny," as if she's nervous that telling it straight would be boring. It wouldn't.) Hirshman's book urges women to stop thinking of childrearing as "work" and to instead go out join the workforce and get paid in cash, like men. And that women who decide to stay home with their kids are dragging all women down. I have mixed feelings about this. I've mentioned before my despair at seeing my women friends give up their dreams and career ambitions, particularly their writing, because of the pressures of family life. I do wish the burden of household drudgery fell equally on men and women. However -- and this is Loh's argument, too -- most jobs suck, anyway. Counting bolts at a factory, and passing on the burden of childcare to another woman, isn't necessarily a more rewarding way to spend your time than being with your kid, to you or to society at large. However, for some women it might be, and is probably a financial necessity, and I don't see the point in being judgemental. Like The New York Times, Hirshman seems to think everyone is upper middle class.

I didn't include any links to The Atlantic because they don't publish fiction as a regular feature anymore, dammit! Curses on them!

Sorry this post is so long, Nicholas Carr.

11 comments:

Mr. Saflo said...

Caleb Crain, who keeps a fine blog, posted this talk he gave last month at an event hosted by internet-hating supervillains n+1. I hate to force links on people, but it's pretty relevant to Part A of your post. I think.

rmellis said...

All righty, then. I will take the B train on over there. I thought no one was going to comment on this post.

jrlennon said...

Sorry, hon, we were all busy rereading "All The Sad Young Literary Men."

rmellis said...

JR: You should give that book a read, just so you know what the hell I'm talking about.

Saflo: Thanks for the link. Something about the style of that post reminds me, eerily, of Keith Gessen's book.

Crain brings up the question of why there's not more serious literature on the internet, but doesn't really attempt to answer it. Hmmm.... I wonder....

jrlennon said...

Because who in the hell wants to look at a computer all day at work, then come home and read a novel on a computer all evening? Freaks, that's who!

However, I happen to think the internet is ideal for discussing and criticizing literature.

james said...

Rhian, is that novel worth reading? From what I've gleaned and the few excerpts I've read it seems like another "Woe is me" late twenty/early thirty-something man-boy tale of a quarterlife crisis. It's the literary equivalent to every Zach Braff movie. Makes me want to retch. P.S. I'm a twentysomething man-boy but I just don't whine about it.

myles said...

I was going to comment, but I got distracted by some cute kittens. Maybe you could do a Flash version instead.

I can accept that the internet can make us a little stupid. A a lot of people seem to think research is what appears on the first Google page. But those who know what they're doing are still digging deeper, and using the material wisely and with discernment. Same as with libraries, or whatever we used before the internet.

And what's more, when I hit my forties, my novel reading really took off. And since I've found so many good literary blogs, I read more (and hopefully better) than ever before.

Mr. Saflo said...

Crain brings up the question of why there's not more serious literature on the internet, but doesn't really attempt to answer it.

It's not an easy question to answer, but he does sort-of take it on with the bit about Larkin's Jill. There's also the stigma of it, and (usually) the complete lack of readers, and the inability to list it under your credentials, and the fact that reading off a computer screen strains the eyes, and and and. It exists, though, even if we're only counting the web-exclusive litmags.

rmellis said...

I found the Keith Gessen novel to be pretty close to unreadable. The prose style is very, very dry, the subject matter humdrum, and the ideas shopworn. Also, the structure is confounding: the second or third chapter in the book is a long chapter about knowing Al Gore's daughter in college. I couldn't get how it fits. And it wasn't that interesting.

I never reviewed it here because I didn't finish it -- it could well all come together later.

rmellis said...

Oh, yeah: I think one of the main reasons there's not much *really good* fiction online is the lack of good pay. That may change. I can't see that there's anything about the internet itself that precludes quality....

AC said...

It's too bad magazines don't do fiction features anymore, because a magazine short story would be just about the right length for Nicholas Carr. And come to think of it, just about the right length to read on the internet without straining the eyes.