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Deja Vu

August 25, 2010

Our Eyes Ache With Reading


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2010: It’s hard to accuse the public of not consuming enough media—constantly reading, writing, texting, gaming, watching, reacting, in an endless circle of action and inaction. The New York Times, always concerned for the health of its readers, reports that scientists urge consumers to take a break, for the good of one’s brain.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

1621: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancoly was a digressive masterpiece, part of which detailed life in the burgeoning age of mass media. Here he bemoans the onslaught of books newly available to the public, but also recognizes that he, as the writer of a thousand page tome, is part of the problem.

[E]very man hath liberty to write, but few ability. Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers, that either write for vain-glory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men, they put out trifles, rubbish and trash. Among so many thousand Authors you shall scarce find one by reading of whom you shall be any whit better, but rather much worse; by which he is rather infected than any way perfected…

What a catalogue of new books this year, all his age (I say) have our Frankfurt Marts, our domestic Marts, brought out. Twice a year we stretch out wits out and set htem to sale; after great toil we attain nothing…What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast Chaos and confusion of Books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number—one of the many—I do not deny it...
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  • You can go even further back than Burton and consider Gessner in 1545 complaining that only kings and princes could solve the problem of a confusing and harmful abundance of books.

    I also like the point of view of Adrien Baillet who said in 1685: "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not."

    I forget the name sociologists give to the phenomenon in which there is a prevalent belief that the times you live in are more complex or "special" than any others before. There should be a catchy name for the sudden realization that it isn't so.

    (there was a very interesting issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas on the Early Modern Information Overload:

    Posted by Claudia on Wed 25 Aug 2010

  • Not too long ago while driving I passed a bus stop shelter wherein sat people either cell phoning and/or working computers--and this was 6 a.m. My thought immediately was how sad that no one could simply embrace the semi dark quiet and just think!

    Posted by Carol on Sun 10 Oct 2010

  • I once read somewhere that Samuel Coleridge was the last person to have been able to read every book ever published in English. Shortly thereafter, publication became so numerous that no one person would be able to keep up with the yearly output.

    I'm of the opinion that reading twice as much as you should, then forgetting half, is better than reading the optimal amount.

    Posted by Quinn Dupont on Tue 11 Jan 2011

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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