Tuesday, January 25, 2011


In a fascinating interview at "Big Think," technology writer Nicholas Carr reminds us that writing has only been around for a couple millennia, and in that time we've jumped from papyrus to iPad (or in my case a Kindle 3G). Obviously, the experience of reading has changed over the years, and in more ways than might be immediately apparent. For example, the spaces between the words.

Carr says that the first writing, on slates and papyrus and even early handwritten books, was written in continuous script. No spaces. Readers used a lot of energy just to separate the words in order to read them. Finally, spaces between the words were "invented."

"And it was only in around the year 800 or 900 that we saw the introduction of word spaces. And suddenly reading became, in a sense, easier and suddenly you had the arrival of silent reading, which changed the act of reading from just transcription of speech to something that every individual did on their own. And suddenly you had this whole deal of the silent solitary reader who was improving their mind, expanding their horizons, and so forth. And when Guttenberg invented the printing press around 1450, what that served to do was take this new very attentive, very deep form of reading, which had been limited to just, you know, monasteries and universities, and by making books much cheaper and much more available, spread that way of reading out to a much larger mass of audience. And so we saw, for the last 500 years or so, one of the central facts of culture was deep solitary reading. The immersion of ourselves in books, in long articles, and so forth."

One could argue that the spaces between the words, which allowed for a private experience, helped create the individual. People were suddenly separate, grappling with deep personal thoughts, experiencing cognition as individuals. People had private experiences before this, of course, but not in such a dedicated and deliberate fashion. The intimacy of the book allowed people safety to think alone, unhindered by social cues, free from groupthink.

TV, on the other hand, might carry us back to olden times. Media expert Marshall McLuhan may have been the first to suggest that television, being once again a shared, group experience, may destroy the private space created in the Age of Print. That age was waning, he said, and soon we would become global villagers.

Carr agrees technology may turning us into neo-primitives. "With the arrival – with the transfer now of text more and more onto screens, we see, I think, a new and in some ways more primitive way of reading. In order to take in information off a screen, when you are also being bombarded with all sort of other information and when there links in the text where you have to think even for just a fraction of a second, you know, do I click on this link or not. Suddenly reading again becomes a more cognitively intensive act, the way it was back when there were no spaces between words. And as a result, I think we begin to lose the ability to read in the deepest, most interpretive ways because were not kind of calming our mind and just focusing on the argument or the story."

But don't fret. You can still read. There are plenty of wonderful books out there to challenge and boggle the mind, brilliant philosophies and histories and works of fiction. Fortunatelytherearestillafewspacesleftbetweenthewords...

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In case you don't have enough time to read books, slates or papyrus, "Cool Tools" has done an amazing job putting together a list of the greatest magazine articles EVER. Check out their list HERE.

The formidable Paris Review has recently posted all their interviews with writers online, a celebrated feature since the 1950s. From William Faulkner to Robert Crumb, the writers spill their guts and share their tricks, Check them out HERE.

Project Gutenberg has done an amazing job collecting 33,000 free books you can read on your Kindle, iPad, Nook, Android, iPhone, Sony Reader or any other electronic book reader. Visit their website HERE.

Then again, if you don't have an eReader (and even if you do) you can still visit a bookstore (we suggest a local, independent bookstore) or a public library, still one of the best ways your tax dollar is spent.

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