Brigitte read to me—after our discussion about Justice Sotomayor (see last post)—a brief piece by Dan Ariely, part of Ask Ariely, in the Wall Street Journal of today: “Do Audiobooks Count as Reading?” Ariely reports that, for him, following an audio book requires more attention that reading a book—and Brigitte and I tend to agree. But our discussion ranged well beyond that. My own reaction to any kind of streaming medium—be it a film, a recording—is a lack of freedom. If one’s device is well equipped, one can certainly stop in the middle of it. But going back, be it on a disk or a tape, is a major problem. When reading a book, it is merely a glance back—and memory is good enough so that one can go back just the right number of pages to recall yet another passage. And books permit you to annotate, to underline.
It then occurred to us that these real-time media are but a electronic extension of ordinary life, where something is always moving and cannot be stopped. The chief merit of YouTube is that it does permit back or forward tracking—and freezing of images. Teaching people how to read, therefore, and accustoming the young to reading books, represents something very important in the development of civilization. It teaches sustained attention—and the value of a symbolic representation of reality. At the same time, it increases our freedom to grasp and understand reality, in a symbolic form. It lifts us above the unending, compelling flow.
There was a story recently of a school where every child received a laptop and all instruction came by way of the machine. The children love it, but the teachers have mixed reactions. Are they sensing something missing in that interaction? Are we, electronically armored, going back to the caves?