The Brain Drain

This web log has long (and maybe ironically) championed old-fashioned books. Not just the words in them, which can be chopped up and re-packaged on e-readers, but of the whole experience: the look, heft, smell, texture of paper books. There’s a tactile experience in reading a real book that can’t be replicated via binary code, not for all the 1’s and 0’s in the world.

This is relatively self-evident, or ought to be, but corroboration is always nice. Enter New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently described a study proving that children who grew up in households with over 500 books stayed in school longer, and did better there, than those who didn’t. (The reason is probably that parents who collect many books are more likely educated themselves, and so more likely to encourage their children’s education, compared to parents who care little for books and don’t own any.)

Conversely, Duke University researchers Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd found that the spread of high-speed internet access varied inversely to reading and math scores on standardized testing. As computers gained, math and reading suffered.

This is nothing new. Computers aren’t the same as books and they never will be. There is something deeply better about books, something worthwhile in them that can never be duplicated online. It’s the difference between participating and observing; holding and smelling a book, turning pages and hearing them crinkle, adjusting a reading lamp… all create a more palpable, effective experience that lends itself more readily to development (intellectual or otherwise) than do glowing monitors and sparkling pop-ups.

In his new book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that an over-abundance of computers, and our subsequent over-reliance on them, is creating a culture which suffers from a generally withered attention span. He cites a mountain of research which proves time and again that overexposure to the hectic website world degrades our ability to think and reason.

Philanthropy agrees with Mr. Carr: programs which provide books to underprivileged students tend to find their beneficiaries performing better than do programs which provide computers. The important part isn’t whether students have the books or not, but rather how they see themselves. Students who gather a personal library begin to see themselves as readers, as members of a club, and it’s a club they begin to want to enter more deeply into. The club is marked by hierarchy: the literary world is one of structured classes, from the highest-brow to the lowest common denominator, to Stieg Larsen somewhere in the middle. And as with any tiered system, the obvious goal is to climb. Kids start with what they’ve got but quickly begin to eye the loftier branches, Tolkien and Davies and Fenimore Cooper, and then reach for the real heights.

The Internet morlocks have an entirely different experience. Their world respects no hierarchy; indeed, it abhors one. The entire point of the blogosphere is to put amateurs of questionable literacy on distributional par with the main-stream media. No journalism degree, no experience, no proficiency with the English language? No problem. Blogs are free and billions of people read them every day. Pull down the tiers, up with the classless Internet! “Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old,” writes Mr. Brooks. “The new media is savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authority disputation.”

The two cultures (the tiered respectability of books and the Internet’s sense of teenaged entitlement) are bound to produce disciples of different abilities, like good parents and bad parents. Those of the books are better-developed and better learners.

Essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote about the differences between being well-informed, hip, and cultured. The Internet might help with the first two… certainly, it keeps us well-informed (to the extent we force it to).

But cultured? That’s something entirely outside the Internet’s ability to convey. Culture comes from appreciation: of what’s good and what’s not, of what’s valuable and what’s not, of what deserves recognition and what doesn’t. And appreciation comes only from consideration, which requires patience. Patience, of course, is one of the things the Internet has failed miserably to cultivate in its adherents. The literary world, says Mr. Brooks, explaining its value over the computerized one, “is better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.”

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