Our Lost Generation
A long time digital subscriber to the New York Times, I recently received a coupon for a discounted price on home delivery. Now receiving the hard-copy of the paper, I am able to read significantly more than I was able to online (I do not like reading online), which also means that I spending a large chunk of my personal reading time dedicated to catching up on the paper, whereas previously most of my personal reading time was allotted to books. While I am learning a lot about various topics, including politics, international affairs, art, culture, science, and more, I feel that reading scattered articles, either online or in print, is a fundamentally deficient reading experience than reading book-length works. The depth and sophistication of a book, in my opinion, does not compare to a 1500 word article.
The truth is that my book time started to erode a couple of years ago with the proliferation of Facebook, the blogosphere, and, most crucially, the smartphone. Whereas a good part of my Facebook feed used to be personal status updates (“I’m at the beach!’), my feed is now dominated by links to news, articles, and blog posts. Interestingly, Facebook is probably the place that many Americans get their news from today. Facebook picked up on this trend when they added the “trending” section and hashtags, changes that help people find more news, faster. Facebook is no longer for posting what I am eating for breakfast, it is for sharing and discussing all types of news. I am now a member of seemingly countless Facebook groups dedicated to reading and discussing various articles about the Jewish community, interfaith relations, American political issues, and more. Keeping up with all of these “must-read” articles takes up a substantial amount of time.
Many of these articles and the ensuing discussions are interesting and important. Facebook is probably the greatest triumph of free-speech in human history. A few years back, if somebody wrote a really thought provoking piece in the LA Times I would never be able to read it, simply because I do not follow that paper. Now I can count on my friend from LA sharing this article, and I am exposed to diverse opinions from all over the world. I am learning about more topics than ever, from more people than ever.
And then there is my iPhone. Like a good millennial, it is always next to me. It is the last thing I glance at before going to sleep and the first thing I reach for when I wake. It is scary how much my smartphone use seems ripped out of the pages of a dystopian novel. As soon as one of my friends posts a must-read article from The Jewish Week about whatever topic (for example), I am able to read it. If I wait even two hours, the conversation might be long over, and I will be 200 comments too late. If I want to be caught-up on community happenings, there is pressure to read these articles immediately.
Being a student with a part-time job and other responsibilities, I have little personal reading time. That means that a large portion of my personal reading time is spent on these articles, either online or in my physical paper, at the expense of books. The problem with books is that they just take too long to read. In the time I can read one 300 page book I could have read 100 three page articles. And no one is discussing the book that I happen to be reading now; it is not “trending.” I have come to realize this unfortunate reality, the death of the book for the millennial generation, and I try and make a conscious effort to make time to sit and read books, filtering out the constant fluttering of my smartphone, laptop, and the beckoning headlines of the New York Times.
Reading articles is simply not the same as reading a book. We read an article in one sitting; a book we read over a number of days, weeks, or even months. There is something to be said for going to sleep with only half of the story in your mind. You have something to think about, to imagine, to dream about. How will my book end? I love coming back to a familiar character (whether the book is fiction or non-fiction). It is like seeing an old friend again; I have to become reacquainted every time I return to the book. My varying day-to-day moods and experiences effect how I view these characters. I read my book on a happy Sunday and when tired on the subway, returning from a long day out. It is for this reason that I also do not binge read. Books entail a more sophisticated reading experience and expand my mind and imagination in a way that no blog post can. It is no coincidence that when I am in the middle of a book I can tell people “I am reading book x.” The process of reading (as opposed to “I read”) is irreplaceable.
Books are also necessarily more in depth. An article, even a long one, can only hope to do so much. This hearkens back to the age-old question of when it comes to learning which is more important, quality or quantity. Obviously both are important, but there is simply no comparison from an intellectual point of view to taking the time to really examine a topic or story, with all of its entailments. The book, theoretically, shows you the whole picture; the article is an intellectual equivalent to a hookup.
It is not easy to escape the cycle of articles. They simply never end; there will always be one more must-read article, one more blog post, one more piece of news that if I do not see right now I will be forever rendered as irrelevant. And then there is the library; I can see it from my apartment’s living room. When I walk through the shelves I am humbled by how much I have yet to learn. Sometimes I am reading a classic novel, and my checking out this book simply adds another wrinkle to the already worn cover. And sometimes I am giving life to a book by being the first one in the library to read it. When the librarian stamps the book with the due-date for the first time, I feel like I can sense the book’s heart begin to beat. Can this profound sensory experience really be compared to being the 962nd person to share this on Twitter?
If I wanted to study the intellectual trends of 1914, 100 years ago, I know where to turn. I will go to the library and look up the writers of the “Lost Generation,” as the post-WWI generation of writers is referred to as, and read about Hemingway’s simple yet never simplistic characters. In 2114, when they want to learn about 2014, what will they read? Where will they turn to? To our millions upon millions of Facebook posts? To another blog post in the Huffington Post? To our endless comments, however interesting, on NYTimes.com?
We too are becoming a lost generation. We are lost from our past, no longer connecting with the great works of the human mind and spirit, losing our collective consciousness. We are lost from our present, as our imaginations and thinking abilities become less complex, inundated with facts but bereft of critical thinking. And most scarily, perhaps, we are lost from our future. There will be no records of our existence. We will never be able to share our struggles, our hopes, our fears, our laughter, and our sadness with our great-great-grandchildren. If they want to research important pieces of writing from our generation, where would they even start? Either that or they will be too busy writing their own blog posts to bother and learn about our experience.
Book burning used to be the biggest threat to human intellectualism. We thought advances in technology would solve that problem—there are enough copies of any given book to go around. But technology brought with it a much more insidious threat, the threat of oversaturation. I know that by writing this article I am, supposedly, setting back my own cause. Hopefully it is not too late. This trend can be reversed, we can take the time to read physical books again, but we need to put in a conscious effort in order to successfully navigate the post-information age.