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In Mind Blog

A guy named Ian McCullough asked the question on Quora, ‘Are people losing interest in the Internet?’ Here’s my answer, edited a bit

Ian, that’s one hell of a ponderable question.

I, like most who have the internet available to them at all times, have seen myself devoting less time to reading books & magazines, and giving up more time to reading websites, watching videos, communicating with friends, etc.

We humans have been pulled into the web seemingly without the ability to resist. But being of an age such that I well remember the pre-internet era, I’ve slid into this state with a nagging, disturbing feeling; it’s a sense that I’ve traded the paper universe and its demands (attention span, commitment to complete the read, a quiet and comfortable space, time alone, a reasonably clear mind) and its gifts (the satisfaction of putting the hours into reading a great book or article, the increase in knowledge, erudition, absorbed facts, interesting things to talk about and/or follow for further study)  — a sense that I’ve exchanged all of that exceedingly valuable stuff for the easy thrill of being entertained and informed, though that’s not the accurate world for it.

And even though I read plenty of so-called high quality material online, it doesn’t seem to sink in or affect me emotionally in nearly the same way a book does. Reading online is reading with a condom on your imagination; you’re aware that something profound might be happening, but you’re unable to get as lost in it as you can with a book in your hands and with no music, emails or chat beeps and farts streaming in to distract you.

Soooo, with all of that in mind, I shut off my devices, sat myself down in my long-unused reading chair and spent half of Saturday digging back into a superb but challenging book (Vol. 1 of ‘The Last Lion’, a fabulous Churchill biography, by William Manchester) I’d started reading years ago, got 1/3 of the way through, then abandoned for no good reason — other than distraction by the easier thing, the net. Once I put the book down at dinner time and poured myself a good-sized bourbon, I couldn’t quite believe how crazed with thoughts and questions and wonder my mind was.

It was a feeling of rediscovering something of immense value, lost for years. It was a double-barreled thrill because of the book’s contents, but also the way it was written — verbally dictated to a typist by the author all from memory. I couldn’t imagine how a single man could hold so much — information, dates, names, places, wars, battles, incidents, and hundreds of illuminating contexts — concerning one of the modern world’s more interesting characters in his mind, then spool it out so beautifully, so read-ably and so damn entertainingly? And on top of this bedazzlement, I was sitting there absorbing the largely unequaled life of Winston Churchill, all his achievements starting at such an early age, and how he dealt with life and his many struggles with such confidence, intelligence, humanity, vanity and humility, panache and, of course, that Howitzer wit. By the time I set it down I was on fire, utterly invigorated and energized.

And it is that singular feeling which will be forever lost on the bulk of literate humanity, if people don’t regularly pull themselves away from the internet and get lost in an old-fashioned paper (not tablet) great book.

Perhaps if people lose interest in the internet — and I hope they do to a useful degree — books will come roaring back as a key channel of human knowledge and morality acquisition. I damn well hope so — because we’re chronically short of masses of informed, energized people of morality and action… precisely at a moment when we’ve never needed them more.