Summertime Fun: 19th Century Russian Style

07/03/2008 By Shawn Burns

On our flight down to San Diego last week Emily and I read magazines. As we were watching Erin play in the airport before our flight Emily said "I’m going to get some magazines, do you want one?" I said "sure". And she said "What do you want?" And I said "surprise me".

When she came back holding a People and a Maxim I was reminded very forcefully how much I love her. She knew I’d’ve bought the Maxim on my own had I been flying alone, but that I wasn’t about to say "Hey, could you pick me up some porn-without-nudity?"

So, I had a nice time with the Maxim Supermodel Issue on the flight. But before I got around to it I spent some time reading a Make-me-feel-less-guilty-about-the-Maxim publication, the Atlantic Journal Monthly (or however we are supposed to arrange those words; seriously AJM or AMJ or AM or whatever, figure it out).

There was a great article about online reading that did things like increase paranoia about computers and reference Nietzsche and his comments about the work he did on a typewriter versus by longhand. It was also titled, entirely for the grab-factor alone, "Is Google making us stoopid?" I don’t really remember Google having much of a role, but the gist of the piece was that maybe the quick hit-and-run reading we do online (blog reading, perhaps using Google Reader so there’s your Google tie) might be changing the way our brains are structured to process information. Several anecdotes were brought into play from people who confessed that they had a hard time focusing on a single long piece of writing for the length of time it deserved, something that they had done easily before becoming blog-and-online-article junkies.

It really was mostly just a technophobic, Luddite article. But, you know what? I just spent 15 minutes on Google trying to figure out what the word for "technology-hating person" was because I couldn’t remember it. I don’t know that it’s necessarily Google’s fault that I couldn’t remember Luddite (and had to give up the search eventually and ask Emily because I wasn’t smart enough to pick the right keywords to find articles online about a group that would not willingly put themselves online), but I wonder about this anecdotal "can’t read long pieces" stuff. Have I lost my own ability for focused reading?

I read blogs instead of 40 page academic papers or 200 page academic books. And now I’ve begun Tweeting, and it’s hard for me to imagine a less focused type of reading than combing through Tweets looking for something interesting.

Emily and I went to see All the Great Books (abridged) a couple of weeks ago and I was once again reminded of that tome that sits on my shelf, unread, with a fresh spine, taunting me. I bought it almost 8 years ago and I picked it up once and put it down pretty quickly. Yeah. War and Peace.

I’ve decided that I’m going to make it through War and Peace this summer. Or I’m going to try. It’s not as though I’m intimidated by the length (size doesn’t matter, say the ladies to their men; size matters not, says Yoda to his boy), but I think I am a little stung by my own earlier failure.

So, here is my clarion: join me in Muscovy. Let’s get through War and Peace this summer. I say let’s finish it off by the end of Labor Day.

If you’ve already read it, you can bite me. If you’ve already started it this summer then kudos to you, but way to make me look bad and I totally wasn’t stealing this idea from you.