Reading opened the world
“Books were once my refuge…To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it. In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.” – Michael Harris
Solitude is rarely a preference, though it may seem to be one because people sometimes choose literal isolation over the dismay of feeling unwanted or misunderstood, lonely even in a crowd. For many of us who have felt the sting of ridicule or censure, our anxiety and fear of rejection draw us into the world of reading, which offers both safety and discovery.
In the old world of printed books, authors who were good enough to be traditionally published and widely read seemed to understand that writing speaks most directly to a reader when there is a bond of mutual trust. By refusing to spell out every detail in condescending dictation, the author allowed her reader to create and follow the details of his own imaginative trail, moving at his own pace. By allowing room for each imagination to re-create its own narrative, the best authors lead readers into a wider world where mindful discovery, understanding and acceptance become possible.
Does digital content accomplish the same thing? I wonder. Digitization encourages a kind of racing through, leapfrogging as one link after another beckons us on in rapid-fire sequence that leaves us little time for reflection. It also creates separate but conflicting echo chambers to accommodate various dogmas and preferences, where anger can fester and feed on itself, and ultimately spill over into off-screen life.
I find the closing sentences of Harris’ quote chilling because I do believe the screens that open the world to us can ironically shut us off from others, even as they create the illusion of being present in human discussion and activity. In the video format, it’s all laid out for us in full color. In online text, messages may be spelled out emphatically, in repetitive ranting. In either format, we can accept or reject content without really being involved at all. It’s easy not to participate by exercising our own judgment or imagination, which is allowed a free ride as all the gaps are filled in with whatever conclusions the content creators want us to see and hear.
When we do interact with the screen, it’s usually in the form of impulsive clicking, jumping from one author to another as we skim furiously and cherry-pick the parts we most want to read– which often means reading only those things with which we already agree. Does this form of open access, this ability to make quantum leaps from one topic to another, paradoxically leave us with narrower ideas and understandings? Does it allow our minds to close off whatever is less flashy and compelling as we dart after the sensational or self-affirming?
Harris observes that screens seem to close the world to him by opening it. I suspect this is an intuition that will resonate with many of us. If so, perhaps it’s partly because, aside from the anxiety and anger, the screen-oriented world simply overwhelms us with link after link, leaving us apt to shut down or gravitate to what is useful and functional and familiar.
When I read the article (linked to Harris’ name above) from which this quote and last week’s quote were drawn, I realized that there is a significant difference in how I feel after I’ve spent a half-hour or more online, and how I feel after I’ve been absorbed in an old fashioned print book. I’m noticeably less calm, sometimes even a bit agitated, after screen time. Yet a book slows me down, psychologically and physically, even when it engages my imagination.
The reasons for the contrast are many, not least of which is that it’s much more difficult to curl up in an easy chair with a computer. I suspect it also has to do with the random nature of online content, where I am forced to encounter (through ads, pop up windows and “helpful” suggested articles) offerings I never intended to buy with even a few seconds of my valuable time and attention.
There’s no easy answer to all this. I have no intention of shutting myself off from cyberspace; in fact, I’m participating in the cacophony by writing this post, as I have done for nearly seven years now. But I believe, with increasing certitude, that one way to defeat the ever-increasing despair of today’s world is to step away from it all as often as possible, and to build– one book, one activity, one friendship or one project at a time– a sanctuary from the dominion of mechanical mind control.