Posted by: Ken Brown | June 11, 2008

The Internet Fried My Brain

Interesting article in The Atlantic on the Internet’s impact on reading habits (HT Boundless Line):

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle….

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

I certainly empathize with this struggle to keep engaged with lengthy material. I rarely read anything online in full, unless I plan on quoting it, and I am easily distracted no matter what I’m reading. It’s particularly a problem if I’m sitting near my laptop, in which case I’m constantly fighting the urge to check my email, sitemeter, or favorite blogs. I have use of an office at my church, and when they finally decided to secure their wireless network, I was almost glad not to have the WEP key — I get so much more done there without the temptation to hop online.

But I can’t say that I read any fewer books now than I ever did. Perhaps because I’ve been an Internet addict since at least sixth grade, I tend to automatically switch between different approaches to reading, from scanning, to reading quickly but in full, to slowly digesting with pencil in hand. My ability to concentrate depends greatly upon the nature and context of what I’m reading. Of course, if something is well written, on a subject I care very much about, and/or helpful to answering a question I’m curious about, I’m more likely to finish it, but I have a much easier time reading large blocks of text on paper than on a computer. I really can’t imagine ever reading a full book on my laptop, nor do I think I would remember as much of it if I did so. Even lengthy articles make me antsy when I try to read them online (heck, I didn’t even finish the one quoted above!).

As much as I love the idea of carrying my library around in my computer, I’m beginning to think it would only be helpful as a supplement to “the real thing,” never as its replacement.

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Responses

  1. the sixth grade?! oiy, you make me feel old, old, old, heh.

    i’ll have to think about how much the internet affects my reading habbits. i know other things do–my love of visual stories (television, film) and the presence of two children under 10 in particular. i’ve also gotten pickier and have developed little patience for badly written or long-winded print pieces. about ten years ago, i finally gave myself permission to not finish books (or skim through instead of reading word-for-word) i wasn’t enjoying or found decreasing value in – quite a decision for a woman with an advanced lit degree who was taught to read through to the bitter end, heh. i also have this nasty habbit of reading the first paragraph AND the last page of a novel before i pick it up, which ends up screening a lot of books off my list. that drives my best friend (a published novelist) crazy, heh.

    still, i read a lot. not as much as i used to, but a lot. and my best friend and i frequently send each other books that we find interesting, which is a really good screening process, too.

  2. Heh, yeah, by sixth grade I was already wasting whole afternoons on AOL’s message boards and free games. But keep in mind that my dad was a programmer back then, so we had computers much earlier than most people (my wife is the same age as me, and her family didn’t own one until she was in high school).

    Anyway, that’s a good point about things other than the Internet having at least as much of an impact on reading. Certainly, since my daughter was born I find it a lot more difficult to sit quietly for extended periods of time. Though if you count kids books, I actually finish far more books now than ever before! 😉

  3. heh, i supose that should make me feel better. my husband shared one of those first generation computers with his roommate in college and by the time we got our own (we were married right out of college), the internet was already nestled into american culture. so, i feel a little better. a little.


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