Over at the Britannica Blog, Clay Shirkey has an interesting reply to Nicholas Carr's much discussed "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Basically, Shirkey claims that the Internet has hastened the demise of not reading itself, but a certain type of reading and culture:
But the anxiety at the heart of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” doesn’t actually seem to be about thinking, or even reading, but culture.
Despite the sweep of the title, it’s focused on a very particular kind of reading, literary reading, as a metonym for a whole way of life. You can see this in Carr’s polling of “literary types,” in his quoting of Wolf and the playwright Richard Foreman, and in the reference to War and Peace, the only work mentioned by name. Now War and Peace isn’t just any piece of writing, of course; it is one of the longest novels in the canon, and symbolizes the height of literary ambition and of readerly devotion.
But here’s the thing: it’s not just Carr’s friend, and it’s not just because of the web—no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting.
This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true. The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it, but that process started long before the internet became mainstream. Much of the current concern about the internet, in fact, is a misdirected complaint about television, which displaced books as the essential medium by the 1970s.
As a consolation prize, though, litterateurs were allowed to retain their cultural status. Even as television came to dominate culture, we continued to reassure one another that War and Peace or À La Recherche du Temps Perdu were Very Important in some vague way. (This tension has produced an entire literature about the value of reading Proust that is now more widely read than Proust’s actual oeuvre.)
And now the internet has brought reading back as an activity. As Carr notes, “we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice.” Well, yes. But because the return of reading has not brought about the return of the cultural icons we’d been emptily praising all these years, the enormity of the historical shift away from literary culture is now becoming clear.
And this, I think, is the real anxiety behind the essay: having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.