While you are waiting with Dr. Ray Klump (see Ray’s faculty blog titled “Software Goes Vroom!”) for the sock-sorting app for your digital phone, you might consider turning to literature to find some guidance through our brave new world. Reading literature can be a preparation for and a necessary antidote to our increasing immersion in a digitized world.
Or so argue all of the contributors to Standing on the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?, a collection of essays edited by Canadian Paul Socken. Some of the contributors are Sven Birkerts, J. Hillis Miller, and Alberto Manguel. I have tried to synthesis the essays, especially when the authors address the same sub-topics.
These explorations are very much support previous commentaries made by Nick Carr in The Shallows (an expansion of his provocative “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article in the Atlantic), by Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation, and by a host of books, like Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, which look at the effects of reading literature from a neuroscience perspective.
Our Contemporary Condition…and How to Thrive in It
Narcissism The digital world is about ME. The user of electronic devices sits at the focal point of multiple message-generating agents. The immediate gratification – the neural tingle that comes from turning on a device and seeing someone reaching out to me – is addictive. With our neural pathways reshaped by technology, we crave new stimulating jolts, jolts made more pleasurable if they are simultaneous. Reading literature helps us to put on the brakes, to reduce our addiction and address our self-preoccupation. One mental process that literature, especially the novel of the 20th century, encourages is the immersion into the lives of others. Multiple narrative experiments in revealing the consciousness of human beings – their ways of responding the world in all of its complexity – have enabled us to imaginatively inhabit the minds of others. While immersed in the novel we play a useful simulation game, following the deliberations of the characters, some like us and some very different from us. We become better mind readers for having seen many fictional minds at work. The literature world at its best is not about me but about them.
Related to Narcissism: Decline in Empathy. New discoveries in the neurosciences, although to be approached with necessary skepticism, seem to support the long-standing, take-my-word-for-it claim that reading literature deepens our empathy. For instance, the discovery of mirror-neurons indicates that reading about a fictional character’s actions produces the same kind of neurological response as if we had done the actions ourselves.
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