the book as fortress

cover of FEED by m.t. anderson

ereaders already are, or will soon enough become, visually engaging; they are in many ways already more convenient than their analog counterparts — from their hypertexuality to their capacity for instant distribution. however — other than the more apparent rebuttals (worse reading resolutions, less hardiness in bathtubs and backpacks, culture placed on permanent electronic life support), i think the less obvious, more subtle rejoinder is unfortunately the important one. as maryanne wolf argues below, we’re not directly wired to be readers. our instincts to follow distractions and follow titillating, quick bits of visual information (e.g. those involved in stalking that saber-toothed dinner) can overcome (perhaps more often in developing brains) our capacity for deep contemplation (e.g. our ability to consider: some day i too will cease to exist like this saber-toothed dinner i’m gnawing on and so i wonder what this means about the value of my own life and also if this would taste better with ketchup).

what the book does then is protect us from the flashing baubles and shiny lights of the beautiful internet vaudeville: that latest email, “friend” request, tweet, jezebel/craigslist/nytimes update… dwelling in the carnival for so long, we tend to forget that there’s another option possible: meadows free of noise.

or if the pastoral gags you: then the book as fortress, a portable monastery keeping aflame the capacity for contemplation in our current digital dark age:

Beyond Decoding Words at:


…In brief, this brain learns to access and integrate within 300 milliseconds a vast array of visual, semantic, sound (or phonological), and conceptual processes, which allows us to decode and begin to comprehend a word. At that point, for most of us our circuit is automatic enough to allocate an additional precious 100 to 200 milliseconds to an even more sophisticated set of comprehension processes that allow us to connect the decoded words to inference, analogical reasoning, critical analysis, contextual knowledge, and finally, the apex of reading: our own thoughts that go beyond the text.

This is what Proust called the heart of reading — when we go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter the beginning of our own.

I have no doubt that the new mediums will accomplish many of the goals we have for the reading brain, particularly the motivation to learn to decode, read and experience the knowledge that is available. As a cognitive neuroscientist, however, I believe we need rigorous research about whether the reading circuit of our youngest members will be short-circuited, figuratively and physiologically.

For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it.

the rest at :

or, similarly Nicholas Carr here:

The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning…Our attention is scattered by all the distractions and interruptions that pour through our computers and digital networks. The result, a raft of psychological and neurological studies show, is cursory reading, weak comprehension and shallow learning.




A good interview with Carr here:

Nicholas Carr — author of last July’sAtlanticcover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — believes the distracted nature of Web surfing is reducing our capacity for deep contemplation and reflection. He began developing his theory when he realized that, after years of online information gathering, he had trouble reading a book or a magazine. As he puts it, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. . . . I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

full interview here:

Reaction to Carr’s article on the here and the reaction in general summarized here.


and as related postscript…

“Are We Doomed?” read the headline to an article in New Scientist, a British magazine that last year took a long look at complexity. (Spoiler alert: maybe.) There is a lot of end-of-days talk when it comes to this subject. You will find a strain of it in the work of Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at the University of Utah and the author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” In the book, Mr. Tainter examines three ancient civilizations, including the Roman Empire, and explains how complexity drove them to ruin, essentially by bankrupting them.

Does he look at the complexity of the problems facing the United States and see doom? Possibly.

“Complexity creeps up on you,” he said in an interview. “It grows in ways, each of which seems reasonable at the time. It seemed reasonable at the time that we went into Afghanistan. It’s the cumulative costs that makes a society insolvent. Everything the Roman emperors did was a reasonable response in the situation that they found themselves in. It was the cumulative impact that did them in.”

Mr. Tainter isn’t peddling the nostalgic charms of simplicity, which is wise because there aren’t a lot of people who would buy it. Unless the subject is TV remote controls, most Americans have a fondness for complexity, or at least for ideas and objects that are hard to understand. In part that is because we assume complicated products come from sharp, impressive minds, and in part it’s because we understand that complexity is a fancy word for progress.

Read the rest at


[since i’d like to put similar links in one place, i’m just going to add to this post… 1/15/12]



from a NYTimes article called “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain (which seems to be precis for her forthcoming Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking):

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.


Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.


another recent piece in the times, pico iyer’s essay, points the same direction:

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

MAYBE that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing — or riding or bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.


also, internet, i give you this: a twenty minute “power-nap” soundtrack which i repurpose as general white noise generator: so when you need to work in a noisy place, use it. 


also, if you need a break, this can be used in conjunction or alternatively with the above: the “desk sleeping bag”









THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION by gilbert sorrentino


shortly after his great, brutal novel RED THE FIEND came out, i wrote what amounted to a fan letter to gilbert sorrentino, whom i’d had as a teacher. he was kind and always responded to my (shamefully hopeful) letters. in this response, he wrote that if his work had any common theme, it was an ever abiding and complete sense of loss.

it should be noted too that sorrentino was of course suspicious of the very conceit of a “common theme,” and would sometimes demonstrate its feebleness by arguing that a writer had only one or two ideas, really. the implication being that these ideas were not the key ingredient. beckett, for example, he would say sardonically, thought the world was bleak.

and now we have his last, posthumously-published novel — THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION — the hint of which was given in a piece published in the spring 07 issue of GOLDEN HANDCUFF REVIEW. that short piece openly announces its autobiography (so much that perhaps we’re obligated to question it) containing admissions like the below short excerpt.

what struck me as i read this last novel was sorrentino’s clear understanding that while he was here (and perhaps throughout his career) dealing with absolutely common, almost bathetic episodes of human misery, each familiar trope nonetheless is relieved (variably, here, certainly–but at times transcendentally) of its mundane moorings and wrestled into artifice.

to me, this transformation is something of great mystery. the furious ravings of a cuckold or drunk, nostalgia, even the confessions of desperate or envious or dying writers are made into something else: something somehow simultaneously witty, inexplicably sad, and determinedly fake. the latter out of a sense of integrity, the moral that art is not a transparent glass through which we can see reality, but an opaque, additional reality (to which, perhaps, we might compare our own).


He wasn’t much good for anything else, and what he did know how to do — even when, he smiled ruefully — even when he knew how to do it, proved nothing, changed nothing, and spoke to about as many people as one could fit into a small movie theater.

And so he continued to do it, correcting and revising each newly made page with a feeling of weird neutrality, with a feeling that he was simply passing the time: this or solitaire — all right, this. Surely, the other old writers he still knew felt precisely this way. Did they? He surely wouldn’t ask such an impertinent question.

He had recently received a letter from a dear friend, who, it so turned out, died soon after. He took the letter from his files one morning, before he started what he now thought of as “work,” scare quotes flaring, and found in it what he was sure he had read. The friend had confessed to him that his last book was, indeed, his last book, that he had given up or lost — it made little difference — the ability and the desire to write another word…

He sat at his desk, and read the letter again. He wished, oh how he wished it wasn’t so, but he was choked with envy of his friend’s sterility: not to be able to write, not to want to write, to be, as they say, “written out,” or, more wonderfully, “burnt out” — lovely phrase! But it was a gift that had not been given him, and, he knew, despairing, that it would never be given him. He was doomed, damned, if you will, to write on, and on and on, blundering through the shadows of this pervasive twilight, until finally, perhaps, he would get said what could never be said.

buy it from the publisher. find it at your local library.

info for an event on 2/20/10 in celebration of the book’s publishing. with reading by walter abish, david markson, susan daitch and others here.

a reminiscence i wrote on sorrentino for the brooklyn rail here.

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