Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 11, 2015

rewiring the reading organ

Here's Gary Shteyngart on Saul Bellow:

The first time I tackled Ravelstein, back in 2000, this American mind was as open to long-form fiction as any other and I wolfed the novel down in one Saturday between helpings of oxygen and water and little else. Today I find that Bellow’s comment, ‘It is never an easy task to take the mental measure of your readers,’ is more apt than ever. As I try to read the first pages of Ravelstein, my iPhone pings and squawks with increasing distress. The delicate intellectual thread gets lost. Macaulay. Ping! Antony and Cleopatra. Zing! Keynes. Marimba! And I’m on just pages 5 and 6 of the novel. How is a contemporary person supposed to read 201 pages? It requires nothing less than performing brain surgery on oneself. Rewiring the organ so that the neurons revisit the haunts they once knew, hanging out with Macaulay and Keynes, much as they did in 2000, before encounters with both were reduced to brief digital run-ins on some highbrow content-provider’s blog, back when knowledge was actually something to be enjoyed instead of simply being ingested in small career-sustaining bursts.

Shteyngart is sort of channeling Nick Carr here. Several years ago Carr wrote

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. 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.

Of course, some people have always been this way. In my book on The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I claim that John Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis’s early novel Money, is our patron saint. Self tries reading Animal Farm in order to please a woman who bought it for him: 

Reading takes a long time, though, don’t you find? It takes such a long time to get from, say, page twenty-one to page thirty. I mean, first you’ve got page twenty-three, then page twenty-five, then page twenty-seven, then page twenty-nine, not to mention the even numbers. Then page thirty. Then you’ve got page thirty-one and page thirty-three — there’s no end to it. Luckily Animal Farm isn’t that long a novel. But novels . . . they’re all long, aren’t they. I mean, they’re all so long. After a while I thought of ringing down and having Felix bring me up some beers. I resisted the temptation, but that took a long time too. Then I rang down and had Felix bring me up some beers. I went on reading.

Nothing against the Shteyngart piece, but it’s not really telling is anything new. People keep reminding themselves that this is The Way We Live Now but they just keep on living that way. Eventually they’ll either live some other way or start telling different stories, I guess. 


  • Perhaps another option exists: people will stop complaining about living with constant distraction, impatience, and scattered focus because they will no longer know that there were ever other ways.

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