BOOKS VS. BITS

By Geoff Olson

It’s that time of the season again. Time to head down to the beach with that dog-eared, sunblock-stained blockbuster you failed to finish last summer.

With our shrinking attention spans and busy lives, books seem harder  than ever to finish – or even start. Slim volumes swell to focus-demanding cinderblocks, even without getting damp from the beach. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings becomes “I Don’t Know Why I Can’t Read The Damn Thing.”

At least that’s how it is with me. After about  six weeks of digital dithering, I tried getting back into old-school analog reading. I’d pull something from my bookshelf  and crack the spine in a spirit of optimism. Within the first few pages my mind would start pacing around like a Jack Russell locked in a bathroom. I kept feeling the gravitational pull of  my tablet and laptop.

I just wanted to sit quietly with a few of my favourite authors, but they rejected my attempts at print-based intimacy. Or rather, my brain rebelled. In just little over a month, it had turned into a junkie jonesing for another quick shot of dopamine from the online world.

I doubt a Kindle or other e-reader would help with the problem – certainly not if it had access to e-mail and websites. A study In Norway recently determined  that students learn better from texts on paper than pdf file on computers with 15 inch LCD monitors. Ebooks also come second to the printed page in terms of comprehension, according to Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England.

“The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized,” Sellen told Scientific American. “Only when you get an e-book do you start to miss it. I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”’

It used to be when I focused on a challenging passage in a book, I would look up from the page and marinate in the words. It was something of a meditative practice. But my brain had traded deep and narrow for wide and shallow.

I totally get comic Patton Oswalt’s recent decision to swear off social media for the summer. “I’ve aggressively re-wired my own brain to live and die in a 140 character jungle,” he wrote on Facebook. “I want to de-atrophy the muscles I once had. The ones I used to charge through books, sprint through films, amble pleasantly through a new music album or a human conversation. I’ve lost them — willingly, mind you. My fault. Got addicted to the empty endorphins of being online.”

Oswalt became addicted to “ a portal to a shadow planet”  the “size of a deck of cards.” He couldn’t  keep himself “from peeling off one card after another, looking for a rare ace of sensation.”

Unlike the comic, I have no smart phone – just a dumb, lozenge-shaped one with an alphanumeric keypad and no Internet access. That’s quite deliberate on my part. As an info-junkie and info-hoarder by nature, I need extra distractions the way basketball honcho Donald Sterling needs an open mike.

Yet even with my pocket partner from the digital Palaeolithic, I was still struggling with that modern affliction, “continuous partial attention.” CPA results from incessant multitasking, which is the practice of simultaneously doing a number of things poorly rather than doing one thing well. I work at home and spend a huge chunk of my life online. For all the fantastic web sites, news portals, and links to pussycat videos, when I get out the door I prefer to be free of the attention-fracturing Borg.

In the words of writer and artist Douglas Coupland, “I miss my pre-Internet brain.” Coupland’s intellectual ancestor, Marshall McLuhan, was right. How you watch, listen or read is as important as what you watch, listen or read. The medium is the message.

“I need to dry out, and remind myself of the deeper tides I used to be able to swim in — in pages, and celluloid, and sounds, and people,” wrote Patton Oswalt before signing off.  For my part, I’m determined to start and finish a whack of books this summer. It’s a modest and numerically undefined goal.

The Vancouver Courier, June 13

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