On Long Reads

After once again reading through Nicholas Carr’s article, “Is Google making us stupid?”, which discusses the topic of whether or not the Internet has changed how we think, I find it poignant to note that the very same notions constantly strike me, too, as I peruse the world of Cracked and other random sites. While Carr argues that hyperlinks do more than point to further sources, they *demand* that a person follow them, often without finishing the original article, there seems something far more insidious at work. He, and others (including myself) note how difficult it has become to read a novel, or any work longer than six pages.

I like to make a point of reading longer works, but my life is far different than that of your average bear. A mind unencumbered, free to flow and express itself with clarity and vision, has been a personal target for a very long time. Arguably, the greatest strength a reader can derive from reading a long work is that of concentration, as they are forced to train their mind to stick to a continuous storyline, and to maintain the ideas of the characters throughout the week or two that it might take to get through a full 1,000 page novel. The tiny works on the Internet that I find on Cracked are not intended to be anything more than junk food for the mind, and they make no effort to disguise that that’s precisely what they are offering. What disturbs me, however, is that the majority of these same works are almost entirely forgotten well before I even finish the last of their listed stories. With no reason to remember them, they are gone; only long reads, particularly novels and books, make any demand on the memory and brainpower of a reader.

A recent article from I-know-not-where discussed the value of nonfiction works, arguing that reading them is an excellent way to produce an ethical, conscientious reader, as they are forced to think in the same way as the writer (by way of the narrative) and the characters (by way of their dialogue). Narration may be presented through an impartial omniscience, but a far more effective way to have a reader think in a pattern that can alter their brain must be through first person narration. Neuroscientists used to believe that the adult brain remains in a state of rigid inflexibility, yet recent findings have shown that the brain is constantly changing its network throughout its lifecycle, and certain techniques can be employed to have memories themselves either removed or altered. This is important not only for traumatic cases like soldiers who have suffered in war and have been unable to adjust to life back home (as was the focus of the article in which I first read about this discovery), but for the argument here, as it shows that we can, indeed, change how we think about ourselves and about other people throughout our lives. We are not rigid and unchanging unless we want to be.

Certainly, not all works of literature are entirely humanist in nature, and flaws in the author’s own vision can translate in ways I might disagree with, but a wide range of reading materials ought to counter these challenges. As a person whose reading habits included a healthy dose of Claremont’s X-Men during my formative years, I have little doubt that the constant pleading that mutants be treated as equals to humans had a profound impact on how I view people with all kinds of different backgrounds, whether by appearance or by belief. Many times, I have read about the maltreatment of females at comic stores, conventions and the like, yet I know not from where these idiot males got their ideas from. A white male myself, I have experienced neither as participant nor observer any of the asserted issues, though I’ve no doubt that they do occur with elevated regularity compared to other subcultures.

Novels played only a small part in my youthful readings, and even today I read far less than I would prefer (though still far more than my demographic). I signed out Dostoyevsky’s “Uncle’s Dream” yesterday, after reviewing the description of its being a satire, or humorous short novel, rather than its off-putting cover with the glaring madman’s eyes staring out at me. It is my hope that a short novel will maintain my attentions, though I am reminded that the very form of the short novel is quickly becoming an antiquated concept. They simply aren’t marketable, these days, and either inflated works of 600+ pages or collected works of short novels seem far more profitable, so this is the direction that the industry seems to be taking. Of course, there are the traditional methods of inflating a short story, known to any smart student essayist: change the font size; switch to double spacing; widen the margins; add lots of chapters, each of which must start at the top of the next page (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown); add pictures; etc., so there are workarounds. I would suspect that this edition of “Uncle’s Dream”, which clocks in at something like 150 pages, would top 300 if today’s publishers had anything to do with it. Its being a Classic work, publishers are doubtless unconcerned with striving for a non-Literate audience, so the small type, kerning, spacing etc. remain as they were in old publications of “Uncle’s Dream”.

Some people argue that the practise of reading is dying out. I do not believe that; after all, “universal” public education is a concept not even two centuries old. Since that time, there have been advances in technology that have allowed us to transmit ideas via telephone, cinema, audio recordings and blendings of these and other modes. Their effectiveness at reaching a wide audience is undisputable, and the Internet has only encouraged the spreading of information in this way. However, few are as powerful in changing how we actually think than the written media. It may take more effort to read than other forms of receiving information may require, but that it not its weakness, that is its strength.

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