Authors: Nicholas Carr
So many books—so much confusion!All around us an ocean of printAnd most of it covered in froth.
But the froth itself was vital. Far from dampening the intellectual transformation wrought by the printed book, it magnified it. By accelerating the spread of books into popular culture and making them a mainstay of leisure time, the cruder, crasser, and more trifling works also helped spread the book’s ethic of deep, attentive reading. “The same silence, solitude, and contemplative attitudes associated formerly with pure spiritual devotion,” writes Eisenstein, “also accompanies the perusal of scandal sheets, ‘lewd Ballads,’ ‘merry bookes of Italie,’ and other ‘corrupted tales in Inke and Paper.’”
Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are largely the same.
Not everyone became a book reader, of course. Plenty of people—the poor, the illiterate, the isolated, the incurious—never participated, at least not directly, in Gutenberg’s revolution. And even among the most avid of the book-reading public, many of the old oral practices of information exchange remained popular. People continued to chat and to argue, to attend lectures, speeches, debates, and sermons.
Such qualifications deserve note—any generalization about the adoption and use of a new technology will be imperfect—but they don’t change the fact that the arrival of movable-type printing was a central event in the history of Western culture and the development of the Western mind.
“For the medieval type of brain,” writes J. Z. Young, “making true statements depended on fitting sensory experience with the symbols of religion.” The letterpress changed that. “As books became common, men could look more directly at each other’s observations, with a great increase in the accuracy and content of the information conveyed.”
Books allowed readers to compare their thoughts and experiences not just with religious precepts, whether embedded in symbols or voiced by the clergy, but with the thoughts and experiences of others.
The social and cultural consequences were as widespread as they were profound, ranging from religious and political upheaval to the ascendancy of the scientific method as the central means for defining truth and making sense of existence. What was widely seen as a new “Republic of Letters” came into being, open at least theoretically to anyone able to exercise, as the Harvard historian Robert Darnton puts it, “the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading.”
The literary mind, once confined to the cloisters of the monastery and the towers of the university, had become the general mind. The world, as Bacon recognized, had been remade.
THERE ARE MANY
kinds of reading. David Levy, in
, a book about our present-day transition from printed to electronic documents, notes that literate people “read all day long, mostly unconsciously.” We glance at road signs, menus, headlines, shopping lists, the labels of products in stores. “These forms of reading,” he says, “tend to be shallow and of brief duration.” They’re the types of reading we share with our distant ancestors who deciphered the marks scratched on pebbles and potsherds. But there are also times, Levy continues, “when we read with greater intensity and duration, when we become absorbed in what we are reading for longer stretches of time. Some of us, indeed, don’t just
in this way but think of ourselves as
Wallace Stevens, in the exquisite couplets of “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” provides a particularly memorable and moving portrayal of the kind of reading Levy is talking about:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to beThe scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:The access of perfection to the page.
Stevens’ poem not only describes deep reading. It demands deep reading. The apprehension of the poem requires the mind the poem describes. The “quiet” and the “calm” of the deep reader’s attentiveness become “part of the meaning” of the poem, forming the pathway through which “perfection” of thought and expression reaches the page. In the metaphorical “summer night” of the wholly engaged intellect, the writer and the reader merge, together creating and sharing “the conscious being of the book.”
Recent research into the neurological effects of deep reading has added a scientific gloss to Stevens’ lyric. In one fascinating study, conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal
in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” The brain regions that are activated often “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.” Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, “is by no means a passive exercise.”
The reader becomes the book.
The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work. It gives the author the confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory. “All great men have written proudly, nor cared to explain,” said Emerson. “They knew that the intelligent reader would come at last, and would thank them.”
Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book. After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated.
Many of the new words encapsulated abstract concepts that simply hadn’t existed before. Writers experimented with syntax and diction, opening new pathways of thought and imagination. Readers eagerly traveled down those pathways, becoming adept at following fluid, elaborate, and idiosyncratic prose and verse. The ideas that writers could express and readers could interpret became more complex and subtle, as arguments wound their way linearly across many pages of text. As language expanded, consciousness deepened.
The deepening extended beyond the page. It’s no exaggeration to say that the writing and reading of books enhanced and refined people’s experience of life and of nature. “The remarkable virtuosity displayed by new literary artists who managed to counterfeit taste, touch, smell, or sound in mere words required a heightened awareness and closer observation of sensory experience that was passed on in turn to the reader,” writes Eisenstein. Like painters and composers, writers were able “to alter perception” in a way “that enriched rather than stunted sensuous response to external stimuli, expanded rather than contracted sympathetic response to the varieties of human experience.”
The words in books didn’t just strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they enriched people’s experience of the physical world, the world outside the book.
One of the most important lessons we’ve learned from the study of neuroplasticity is that the mental capacities, the very neural circuits, we develop for one purpose can be put to other uses as well. As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative. “New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read,” says Maryanne Wolf; “the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire.”
The quiet of deep reading became, as Stevens understood, “part of the mind.”
Books weren’t the only reason that human consciousness was transformed during the years following the invention of the letterpress—many other technologies and social and demographic trends played important roles—but books were at the very center of the change. As the book came to be the primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight, its intellectual ethic became the foundation of our culture. The book made possible the delicately nuanced self-knowledge found in Wordsworth’s
and Emerson’s essays and the equally subtle understanding of social and personal relations found in the novels of Austen, Flaubert, and Henry James. Even the great twentieth-century experiments in nonlinear narrative by writers like James Joyce and William Burroughs would have been unthinkable without the artists’ presumption of attentive, patient readers. When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear.
The literary ethic was not only expressed in what we normally think of as literature. It became the ethic of the historian, illuminating works like Gibbon’s
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
. It became the ethic of the philosopher, informing the ideas of Descartes, Locke, Kant, and Nietzsche. And, crucially, it became the ethic of the scientist. One could argue that the single most influential literary work of the nineteenth century was Darwin’s
On the Origin of Species
. In the twentieth century, the literary ethic ran through such diverse books as Einstein’s
General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
, Thomas Kuhn’s
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, and Rachel Carson’s
. None of these momentous intellectual achievements would have been possible without the changes in reading and writing—and in perceiving and thinking—spurred by the efficient reproduction of long forms of writing on printed pages.
LIKE OUR FOREBEARS
during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture’s mainstream still ran through the printing press.
Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer—desktop, laptop, handheld—becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet. We cannot go back to the lost oral world, any more than we can turn the clock back to a time before the clock existed.
“Writing and print and the computer,” writes Walter Ong, “are all ways of technologizing the word” and once technologized, the word cannot be de-technologized.
But the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.
OUR MODERN MEDIA
spring from a common source, an invention that is rarely mentioned today but that had as decisive a role in shaping society as the internal combustion engine or the incandescent lightbulb. The invention was called the Audion. It was the first electronic audio amplifier, and the man who created it was Lee de Forest.
Even when judged by the high standards set by America’s mad-genius inventors, de Forest was an oddball. Nasty, ill-favored, and generally despised—in high school he was voted “homeliest boy” in his class—he was propelled by an enormous ego and an equally out-sized inferiority complex.
When he wasn’t marrying or divorcing a wife, alienating a colleague, or leading a business to ruin, he was usually in court defending himself against charges of fraud or patent infringement—or pressing his own suit against one of his many enemies.
De Forest grew up in Alabama, the son of a schoolmaster. After earning a doctorate in engineering from Yale in 1896, he spent a decade fiddling with the latest radio and telegraph technology, desperately seeking the breakthrough that would make his name and fortune. In 1906, his moment arrived. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he took a standard two-pole vacuum tube, which sent an electric current from one wire (the filament) to a second (the plate), and he added a third wire to it, turning the diode into a triode. He found that when he sent a small electric charge into the third wire—the grid—it boosted the strength of the current running between the filament and the plate. The device, he explained in a patent application, could be adapted “for amplifying feeble electric currents.”
De Forest’s seemingly modest invention turned out to be a world changer. Because it could be used to amplify an electrical signal, it could also be used to amplify audio transmissions sent and received as radio waves. Up to then, radios had been of limited use because their signals faded so quickly. With the Audion to boost the signals, long-distance wireless transmissions became possible, setting the stage for radio broadcasting. The Audion became, as well, a critical component of the new telephone system, enabling people on opposite sides of the country, or the world, to hear each other talk.
De Forest couldn’t have known it at the time, but he had inaugurated the age of electronics. Electric currents are, simply put, streams of electrons, and the Audion was the first device that allowed the intensity of those streams to be controlled with precision. As the twentieth century progressed, triode tubes came to form the technological heart of the modern communications, entertainment, and media industries. They could be found in radio transmitters and receivers, in hi-fi sets, in public address systems, in guitar amps. Arrays of tubes also served as the processing units and data storage systems in many early digital computers. The first mainframes often had tens of thousands of them. When, around 1950, vacuum tubes began to be replaced by smaller, cheaper, and more reliable solid-state transistors, the popularity of electronic appliances exploded. In the miniaturized form of the triode transistor, Lee de Forest’s invention became the workhorse of our information age.
In the end, de Forest wasn’t quite sure whether to be pleased or dismayed by the world he had helped bring into being. In “Dawn of the Electronic Age,” a 1952 article he wrote for
, he crowed about his creation of the Audion, referring to it as “this small acorn from which has sprung the gigantic oak that is today world-embracing.” At the same time, he lamented the “moral depravity” of commercial broadcast media. “A melancholy view of our national mental level is obtained from a survey of the moronic quality of the majority of today’s radio programs,” he wrote.
Looking ahead to future applications of electronics, he grew even gloomier. He believed that “electron physiologists” would eventually be able to monitor and analyze “thought or brain waves,” allowing “joy and grief [to] be measured in definite, quantitative units.” Ultimately, he concluded, “a professor may be able to implant knowledge into the reluctant brains of his 22nd-century pupils. What terrifying political possibilities may be lurking there! Let us be thankful that such things are only for posterity, not for us.”