Not too long ago, I read Nicholas Carr's article for The Atlantic, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" In it, Carr argues that the proliferation of online writing may have had profound effects on the way we read and process information:
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
I remember when I was a student at Amherst College, I'd be assigned roughly 80 pages of reading per night per class. Such reading encompassed all kinds of material, including Asian-American writing, Psychology case studies, Shakespeare, Russian poetry, etc. And while I can't say I did every page of reading assigned to me, I remember sitting in my dorm's beanbag chair for hours on end, consuming vast quantities of text on a weekly basis.
As I started writing online and reading dozens of 200-300 word blog posts per day, I felt my attention span begin to wane. I couldn't focus as much as I did back during my college days. Books and even magazines seemed easier to put down. The effect was genuinely frightening to me. Would I ever be able to regain my old levels of attentiveness back?
Enter the Kindle + Instapaper combo.
With this combination, I bookmark articles to my Kindle, curl up on the couch, and read for an hour or two straight, taking in one or two 10,000 word pieces with ease. The Kindle is light, it's convenient, it's easy to hold and read, and most importantly, reading is the only thing it's designed for. My iPad is heavy and unwieldy and I often get distracted by my gaming apps, by Twitter, or by e-mail. But my Kindle lets me focus and take in huge volumes of non-fiction feature writing. Not only am I keeping up with world events, I feel my mind getting sharper. Air smells sweeter. Food tastes better. And so on.
Several wonderful websites have sprung up that feed into this universal desire to learn via reading on a Kindle/iPad/iPhone. Longreads was the first one I discovered, but I've also since begun enjoying Give Me Something to Read.
In the spirit of spreading the wealth, the Longreads twitter account has begun sharing various people's favorite longreads of 2010. I thought I'd pitch in with my own contribution. The only rules for this list? It has to be a long read, and it has to have been published in 2010 (although I might not have necessarily got it from the site longreads.com):
5) Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous To Your Health - Months before Devra Davis's Disconnect was published, Christopher Ketcham unleashed this monster of an article at GQ, which presents a pretty damning case for why cell phones may be killing us after all. Very few articles change the way I go about my daily existence, but this was one of them. After I read this, I was a lot more reluctant to let my phone rest on my lap during car rides.
4) The Disadvantages of an Elite Education - William Deresiewicz writes about what an elite education takes away from you, and brings up ideas I never explicitly considered but, in the back of my mind, always knew were true (following emphasis mine):
If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your life?
Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.
As a student currently getting a degree in Education, and who was always driven to attend the most elite schools by my parents, this was particularly poignant to me.
3) The High is Always the Pain and the Pain is Always the High - A fantastic piece by Jay Caspian Kang about the trials and the joys of being a gambling addict. I've spent time in Vegas casinos before but not like Kang. And while I never want to reach the levels that he reached in this piece, I was glad to be able to experience it vicariously through his addictive writing.
2) No Angel, No Devil - This is an absolutely riveting and expansive piece on Gaile Owens, the only woman to be on Tennessee's death row in almost 200 years. The story of her imprisonment and the subsequent travesty of justice that befell her sounds like it came from an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but Brantley Hargrove's prose gives it a life and momentum all its own.
1) The Tortured Life of Eric Show - You may be a talented musician. You may have a beautiful wife. You may be good enough to play major league baseball. But that doesn't mean that a series of unfortunate events can't completely destroy your life. A tragic story, and a chilling reminder that none of us are safe from the whims of fate.
[Honorable mention: No Time for Love, Dr. Jones! - It turns out the Korean version of Jersey Shore might not be an abomination after all. A heartfelt piece, earnest piece about Asians in the media by Mike Le.]
And at the risk of self-promotion, it goes without saying that Stephen Tobolowsky's two pieces for the Awl were magnificent and worthy of your time.
I'll be looking forward to a fantastic new year of in-depth reading and learning!