Periodical Essay Story

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They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.

I leaned against the wall, hip touching the piano’s back beam, watching David play.

The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes.

As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information.

They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited.The authors of the study report: It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.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.Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand.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.Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether.My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences.The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.


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