Christmas is coming. I sense it in the tingle I get when I pass Best Buy or the Apple store. I see it in the twinkle of LED screens and hear it in the bleeps and clicks of downloads. For all that I eschew in contemporary culture (I have yet to watch a reality show), I am a complete sucker for digital gadgets, and the excuse Christmas brings to acquire some new toy, which I clearly do not need, sets my acquisitive heart aflutter. How can I sit here, surrounded by a lifetime of collected books, and still crave the new MacAir? Or maybe that new color Nook? The latest Kindle? Really, it's embarrassing. A few months ago, when one of our ancient computers spewed smoke and booted only a blue screen, my daughter pounced on my netbook and left me no choice but to buy an iPad. I am now convinced that, with the right apps, this 1.5 pound slab could make fusion feasible and achieve accord between the Tea Party and Greenpeace. I downloaded everything Shakespeare published in five minutes — for free — and the thing didn't gain an ounce of weight. With a brush of my finger I can zing from medical research to the latest New Yorker to Twitter. And I do! I jump from link to link getting wisps of information and bits of stories before I dash off toward another attractive distraction, coming away with a thorough understanding of... nothing.
I have to ask myself if the digitized info explosion of the last decade helps to explain my increasing inability to focus on anything for more than three point six minutes, and I'm not alone. Read this intriguing article by Nicholas Carr: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" It's a wonderful thing to be hungry for information, but the unique miracle of human intelligence is how we process that information, absorb it into our own emotional palette, and come up with some new interpretation or contribution; hard to do when you are bouncing from sound bite to sound bite. Authors threatened by a looming dominance of ebooks often take heart in the concept of "enhanced" books:" novels enlivened with links to videos, interviews, and musical interludes that blur the line between a book and a movie and a game. I'm happy to see authors kept busy and fed as the publishing model morphs in unpredictable ways, myself included, but I'm not ready to pretend this new digital product is an improvement over 300 pages of paper and ink. The best novels are dreams, rabbit holes down which the reader falls into foreign worlds where time and place dissolve, the keyhole locked against interruptions. Certainly that is the best mental space within which to create a novel, so intent on trapping your story on the page before it can get away that fire alarms go unnoticed. Which leads me to the slightly disappointing decision that what I should really ask for this Christmas is a pile of fresh yellow legal pads and some new pens.
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Carol Cassella majored in English Literature at Duke University and graduated from medical school in 1986. She currently practices anesthesiology in Seattle and was a freelance medical writer specializing in global public health advocacy for the developing world. She is the mother of two sets of twins.
Books mentioned in this post
Carol Cassella is the author of Healer