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Books vs. Twitter

February 9, 2010

George Packer expresses disquiet about the information overload now being fueled by twitter and blogs:

The other day I had to reshelve two dozen books that my son had wantonly pulled down, most of them volumes from college days. I thumbed idly through a few urgently underlined pages of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a book that electrified me during my junior year, and began to experience something like the sensation middle-aged men have at the start of softball season, when they try sprinting to first base after a winter off. What a ridiculous effort it took! There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world.

It’s attracted a number of responses (Matthew Yglesias, Ta-Nehisi Coates) and counter-responses (Jonathan Chait).

I think the terms of the debate need to be clearer all around. What exactly is most valuable about books and book reading? Once we have a tolerable answer, then we can ask whether New Media threatens it and, most importantly, whether we should care.

As Yglesias’s response brings out, it’s not enough just to say, blandly, that reading books has great intrinsic value. Lots of things have great intrinsic value, many more by far than any of us has time for. Devoting ourselves to one necessarily means taking time away from others, so it’s no objection to Twitter simply that it takes time away from something else.

To avoid this, Chait sharpens Packer’s critique a bit. Twitter doesn’t just occupy our time when we let it–it eats our time up whether we want it to or not. Twitter also shortens our attention spans to the point where we lose our appetite for valuable long-form writing.

That’s helpful, but only slightly. If correct, it tells us the mechanism by which New Media erodes book-reading but not really why this is cause for alarm. The cheerleading futurist can still ask “What’s so super-special about a long attention span?”, and he’ll have a point. True, there’s probably something in itself worthwhile about having a long attention span, but surely the value of books isn’t just that they build up our cognitive faculties. It’s the other way around, of course: having a long attention span is valuable primarily because it lets you reap all the other valuable fruits that books hold out to you. It’s just a nice side-effect that the more you do of this, the easier it gets.

I won’t even attempt to say what the real value of books is. I will say, though, that it’s probably a mistake to think of this as a question about the medium as a whole. Most books are bad books with less real value than a thoughtful one-paragraph blog post. When people talk about the value of books as such, they’re most often talking about the value of good or at least ambitious books (see Packer’s allusion to Kierkegaard), books that attempt to answer questions that cannot even be framed in the public, quickfire forum of electronic media. If we’re going to defend books, we need to think harder about what such questions are and why they’re worth taking seriously.

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