In the NYTimes another complaint about the internet eating brains:

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly responds:

… the fact remains that an awful lot of longish nonfiction writing is needlessly overwritten, and this isn’t something that struck me quite so forcefully before I started blogging. But now, for better or worse, it has. I’m much more sensitive to — and much less tolerant of — padded writing.

So my point is this: if even I, hailing from an earlier generation, feel this way, I can only imagine how teenagers raised on the internet feel. Sure, part of the story may be that their attention spans have become dangerously short, but another part of the story may be that they aren’t willing to slog through multiple pages of irrelevant muck waiting for the author to finally get to the point. It’s not either/or.

I wrote about this subject earlier, back when The Atlantic Monthly was complaining. I wrote:

Fact is, for ages prolific readers have taught themselves how to quickly peruse useful information from nonfiction. I emphasize "peruse" because the word did not originally mean "to skim," it meant "to use thoroughly." The "inverted pyramid" of news reporting, beginning with the most important information first and slowly working in details as the story progresses, wasn’t born with the internet.

Nonfiction, which comprises the bulk of the Internet (news, weblogs, reference, guides, directories) should not be any harder to digest than the subject matter itself — the whole point of nonfiction writing is to convey information as simply as possible. If you spend a substantial amount of time reading qua reading, you should either practice your reading technique more or find better material to read.

It should be clearly I agree with Kevin whole-heartedly, and also consider many "books" to be a "scourge" upon the modern mind. The book form doesn’t automatically guarantee quality, it guarantees length and price, often to the detriment of quality. Here are some examples:

  • quasi-journalism books that "recreate" dialogue based on the author’s supposition (like Bob Woodward’s recent fare);
  • expanded doctoral theses made into book form by little more than chapter headings (a style that’s a plague upon the academic non-fiction world);
  • self-help "books" that could easily have been pamphlet or blogs (even the folks at Lifehacker couldn’t pull that off in a way that didn’t seem stale);

I completely understand the inclination non-traditional authors have to convert their work into book form. It’s prestigious and it pays.

But let’s not pretend that it’s better for people to read 300 printed pages from one author, at least half of which is filler, rather than 10 online pages from 30 different authors. It’s usually worse.