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Pitts column: The Google effect

I had thought it was just me. In reading the cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic, however, I have learned that I am not alone. There are at least two of us who have forgotten how to read.
I do not mean that I have lost the ability to decode letters into words. I mean, rather, that I am finding it increasingly difficult to read deeply, to muster the focus and concentration necessary to wrestle any text longer than a paragraph or more intellectually demanding than a TV listing.
You’re talking to a fellow whose idea of fun has always been to retire to a quiet corner with a thick newspaper or a thicker book and disappear inside. But that has become progressively harder to do in recent years. More and more, I have to do my reading in short bursts; anything longer and I start drowsing over the page even though I’m not sleepy, or fidgeting about checking e-mail, visiting that favorite Web site, even though I checked the one and visited the other just minutes ago.
I’ve tried to figure out why my concentration was shot, but no explanation satisfied: I watch less television than most folks and am no more busy than I was 10 years ago.
Now, author Nicholas Carr posits a new theory. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he notes that he and many of his literary friends report the same experience, leading him to wonder if the Internet is not rewiring our very brains, not altering the hard drive of the human computer. The culture of hyperlinks, blogs and search engines that return more results than you could read in a lifetime is, he argues, changing the way we read and, indeed, think.
– – –
You hardly need me to sell you on the benefits of the Internet. Sitting at her desk, the average human being now has instant access to a vast universe of information a previous generation could not have begun to dream.
But what if the very vastness of that universe, the very fact of so much out there to know and so little time to know it in, requires a tradeoff in concentration and focus?
I mean, we may have more options than ever before, but we’re still dealing with the same 24-hour days we’ve always had. And the Internet does little to filter or prioritize the information it retrieves — it simply dumps it on your head and leaves it to you to figure out. So perhaps it is to be expected that we learn to skim and scan information, but lose the ability to truly absorb and analyze it.
– – –
Granted, this is all theory. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet subjected it to scientific rigor. But it is compelling, nevertheless.
A couple of weeks ago, I read Scott McClellan’s book, “What Happened,” for this column. Deadlines being what they are, I had to wolf down the last 200 pages in a single day. I chose an uncomfortable chair to minimize the danger of dozing off, allowed myself only one Internet break.
I would read this book. Nothing else. Just read.
It was difficult. I felt like I was getting away with something, like when you slip out of the office to catch a matinee. Indeed, I’d have felt less guilty sitting in a matinee. I had to keep reminding myself that this was OK, that, indeed, this was work.
It wasn’t until somewhere around the third hour that I began to unclench, to stop feeling guilty for spending so much time focused on this one bit of matter plucked from a surging sea of knowledge. It felt … liberating.
In an era in which everyone has a truth and the means to fling it around the world, an era in which knowledge is increasingly broad butseldom deep, maybe that’s the ultimate act of sedition: to pick up a single book and read it.
The hours I spent reading McClellan’s book felt like an escape, like I had stepped off a treadmill for the first time in years. The pages fell away and the hours got lost.
I don’t know about you, but I could use more days like that.
– – –
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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