Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why Kids. Can't. Focus.

A librarian bemoans the avalanche of information that students -- and other readers -- must try to master today.
"How long is it?" has replaced "Will I like it?" The students' finicky inclinations, as well as my own recent hasty approach to reading, bothered me enough to try to trace the root cause. I suspect that the tipping point in information overload has tipped. Students' aversion to reading does not necessarily signal a weakness, much less a dislike of reading. For them, and now maybe for me, moving on to something else is an adaptive tactic for negotiating the jungle that is our information-besotted culture of verbiage.

These kids manage to survive by bushwhacking through the muddle -- while seamlessly dealing with an e-mail, a Word document or a 50-page PDF from the scholarly database JSTOR. It's taken them just a few years to arrive at the same conclusion that I've reached after a lifetime of sustained reading: The pursuit of knowledge in the age of information overload is less about a process of acquisition than about proficiency in tossing stuff out. By necessity, we spend more time quickly scanning manuals, king-size novels, the blogosphere and poems in the New Yorker than we do scrutinizing their contents for deeper meaning.

This is the price we pay for the changed demands in reading. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff defines this new reading terrain as "the paradox of our age." We've grown into a culture of searchers, not readers. "Surely, we have never read, or written, so many words a day," Schiff writes. "Yet increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d'oeuvres of education."
Read all … yeah, right.

1 comment:

David Nybakke said...

There is something about all this information and knowledge that leaves me dulled, for where is the wisdom in all of what Thomas Washington writes here? Part of the reason for the overload of information, I believe, is that we have placed all bets on knowledge - if only we knew more stuff than our lives would run more smoothly -thinking knowledge is the key to life and happiness – and in the meantime we have forsaken Wisdom at the altar.