In Nobel Speech, Doris Lessing Blames the Internet for a Decline in Book Reading

Not long ago I attended a party at a house where there didn’t seem to be any books. It was a young couple that I didn’t know well, and there were plenty of new furnishings and decorations, and a large flat-screen TV — but no bookshelves.

Last week Doris Lessing complained about a similar phenomenon on a much larger scale. In the speech she prepared to accept this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, she describes regularly visiting rich schools and even universities where she is told that some students don’t read books at all, and that the library is half-used.

“We are in a fragmenting culture,” she wrote, “where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.”

She goes on to lay the blame on the Internet, which she said “has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.”

Most of the speech has nothing to do with technology, and instead involves scenes of poor people in remote parts of Africa who, despite the odds, hold on to a love and respect for books. One woman clings to a torn section of Anna Karenina, which has found its way to her after a visiting United Nations official carelessly left it behind. It’s a stark contrast in attitudes, and one that is meant to be damning to Internet-happy folks at U.S. schools and colleges.

Her words reminded me of another recent antitechnology outburst by a great writer, John Updike, who at a book fair last year complained that book digitization is destroying reading, by turning long reading sessions into searches for snippets. “Booksellers, defend your lonely forts,” he said. “For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.” He also seemed to be complaining more about a change in attitude toward reading than about any specific technology.

Proponents of book digitization argue that it will one day help bring books like Anna Karenina — and even complete libraries — to remote villages thanks to cheap laptops and ubiquitous network access. Then poor students can get more than just cast-offs. The question posed by Ms. Lessing and Mr. Updike is whether the love of reading comes with these new technological gadgets.

I first heard about Lessing’s Nobel speech yesterday after seeing it reported on Ars Technica. It was hard to find the time to sit down and carefully read it — since e-mail messages kept coming in.

Even so, I never would have heard of her speech — and the other countless ideas I’m exposed to online each day — without all that “blogging and blugging.”—Jeffrey R. Young

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