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How we read

Posted by David Mehegan  June 17, 2008 11:08 AM

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Schlink.jpg
Bernhard Schlink

Leonard Pitts's Miami Herald column of last Sunday came to my attention though Shelf-Awareness.com, a useful book-trade site. Citing Nicholas Carr's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in the current issue of the Atlantic, Pitts acknowledges that he can't seem to read with the same concentration as he used to. Carr had noticed this problem in his reading, and raises the possibility that Internet searching and casual use of Internet-based tools might be rewiring our brains, reducing our ability to extract data or understanding from written text.

Absent some real neurological evidence, I'll choose not to accept this hypothesis. I have never been able to concentrate in my reading as well as I wanted to, and usually it was because I wasn't really interested in the text, was sleep-deprived or seriously distracted by worries, noise, or an uncomfortable chair. Neither Carr nor Pitts give their ages, but I'm here to testify that the aging brain is not the high-powered vacuum cleaner that it is in youth.

I can still remember sitting on the cold floor of a dim, fluorescent-lighted corridor at the Boston Herald Traveler in 1969, where I worked nights in college, trying to find a quiet place to absorb "Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach," by Almond and Powell, an unbelievably tedious theory text, for a politics class. Even then I knew that the problem was in the writing, not my concentration. (Yes, I looked up the title just now on the Internet, but I clearly remembered the authors' names.)

Slow and careful reading does bring rewards, if we're willing to make the effort, and can filter out the garbage that comes our way in the meantime. I have just finished reading the German writer Bernhard Schlink's new novel, "Homecoming," and have a strong feeling that I need to read it again, right now. But not because I lack concentration. It's short and astonishingly strange and beautiful and compelling. Translated, from the German, by Michael Henry Heim and set in Germany, New York City, and the Adirondacks (!), it concerns a young man in a kind of detective search for his lost father (though he doesn't know that at first). Mixed in with the narrative is a rich tapestry of reflections on love, betrayal, Nazism, evil, Homer's "Odyssey," and all other kinds of homecoming, and home-longing, stories.

I read the novel slowly enough to enjoy the main story, but not slowly enough to absorb all that is going on in the emotional/psychological/intellectual/historical shadows. It's the sort of book which you have to read a few pages at a time, stop, think, then read another few pages, and so on. Who has time for that?

Alas, I can't read it again right now, because I have to read a book for an author interview I'm doing on Thursday, and there are so many other things begging for attention. I'll get to it sometime, surely. If someone will remind me.


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About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
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Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.
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