A thought dawned on me when I was reading the River Sutra by Gita Mehta; I hadn’t been so engrossed in a book in a while. Sitting for an uninterrupted hour with this book made me realize how unnatural it had felt not to reach out to my iPhone to check my messages or go online to update my Facebook status or to Instagram a picture of the book I was reading or to tweet to let my followers know how much I was loving reading the River Sutra. I had forgotten to do all of the above things and it felt really strange.
But truth be told, this feeling wasn’t always new. I recall in the past reading umpteen books totally lost in the world created by the author. The mind of an experienced book reader is a calm one and not eternally buzzing but over the past couple of years my mind had transitioned from tranquility to uncontrollable hustle. I had started to wonder why this was happening to me until I came across this book called “What the internet is doing to our brains” by Nicholas Carr. The book was a take on the effect of technology on our mind; research has shown that when the mind reads one book at a time its cognitive sense is further developed to strengthen concentration and focus but the age of digital reading and the many distractions offered by clicking on hyperlinks or advertisements makes our brain mere consumers of mindless data.
The chapter titled The Jugglers Brain in particular held the answer to my question. There was this one sentence in that chapter “Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources.” It was no wonder why I was taking so long to complete reading a single book, every time I would look away from the book I was sucked into, to go online and then return back to it, I had to redo the entire process of re-registering where I had left off, sometimes even having to previously read pages I could faintly recall having read before. My reading had started to suffer and as per Nicholas I had the Internet to blame.
The book talks about how the internet has rewired our brains into losing certain skills that we were once masters of – one of which involved deep reading; unfortunately speed reading and not deep reading is the term to be used in the new generation of digitalized reading. While I am not sure how the internet has affected my brain in other ways, I am pretty sure I can proclaim myself to be an avid speed reader. There isn’t a single online article that I cannot finish reading within 30 seconds and that is something not to be proud of, because when you ask me (five minutes later) what I had read I could probably barely recall two key terms. The scary truth was Internet had consumed me and millions of others around me; we want to do everything online, including reading books! Electronic reading in the form of Kindles, Ipads and other reading apps will eventually take over and why not? Who am I to campaign against saving millions of trees when the swipe of a finger can deliver all 354 pages of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi into my eager hands?
Mark Federman, an education researcher at the University of Toronto argued that ‘literacy is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry- clearly not devoid of value but equally no longer the structuring force of society’.
While reading the River Sutra, I came across pencil notes of meanings against certain words inscribed into my copy of the book borrowed from the Toronto Public Library and my mind wandered to the previous reader – who she might be? maybe a young girl who was given this book as an assignment for school or maybe a guy whose new year’s resolution was to learn the meanings of 5 new words and that’s why he scribbled on to them? I could leave my wonderings unanswered.
A story trapped inside a kindle or an iPad or another reading app is nothing but just a story, they are digitally embedded words; but a story trapped inside a book when borrowed from a library or purchased used or lent as new is passed through millions of hands captured with numerous of thoughts and feelings of those readers; maybe some who scribbled notes on the side (like my mysterious previous reader) or spilt coffee on it or even got an author to sign it for them. These stories inside a physical book tell yet another story, a story of a powerful relation that is formed between characters, events and ideas with the sense of touch of paper or whiff of ink.
And while it’s true that more pages of a book would rather be turned by a scroll on a screen rather than held physically between two fingers; eliminating a book’s physical existence ensures that the experience of reading in its most traditionalist form will eventually lose its true value and thereby its universal connection, altering its destiny for future years to come.
But as for me – I will still continue to borrow books from the library, try to return them on time and clutch to that inkling of hope that someday I will build a library of conventional books in a little corner of my house and will still have friends and family over to borrow them all the time. I will still hold the faith that the destiny of books doesn’t lie digitized in my iPhone app but lies on a simple sheet of paper with that familiar smell of fresh print.