My sister is driving me to Dulles. Once upon a time, it seemed a cockeyed idea to build an international airport to serve the nation’s capital in remote Virginia farming country. Now, high-rise apartments, shopping malls and office blocks, the flotsam and jetsam of our prosperous age, line the road and the distance has shrunk.
I’m telling her a story about another trip to this airport, one that involves the wife of George W. Bush. And suddenly, weirdly, I can’t remember the former First Lady’s name. I can see her as plain as day, can drag up meaningless details-former librarian, twin daughters, boring stuff-but I cannot remember her name. And neither can my sister.
It’s driving us crazy. We try the alphabet method-Abby, Beth, Caroline-but get nowhere. My sister changes lane and, using her hands-free, calls her husband. ‘Tom, what is George Bush’s wife’s name? No, not Barbara, that’s his mother’s name. His wife.’ Tom can’t remember either. She calls her office and speaks to her assistant. Jennifer instantly Googles and out it pops: Laura.
‘Oh, for God’s sake’, we say in unison. How could we forget that? She may not be as memorable as Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, but for eight years, we watched Laura Bush never put a foot wrong, witnessed her stop breathing every time her husband opened his mouth.
But Mrs Bush is not the point of this story. The point is that my best friend, Memory, is pulling away from me. Not leaving the country, not filing for divorce, not eloping with a barmaid, but no longer devoted to me, no longer willing to spend hours immersed in a book that’s 562 pages, no longer happy just messing around, retrieving meaningless facts (Laura Bush).
Memory and her first cousin Concentration. There was a time when fat books were my read of choice. I didn’t want Middle-march to end. I preferred life through a three-volume narrative. Now, after I read a chapter or two, I begin to fidget. I get up and check my emails, wander outside with the dog, pick lettuces for supper, check the peahen sitting on eggs, come back, turn on the radio, open the book and try to read a few more pages.
Sometimes, I make a deal with myself. Ten pages without hopping up. I read Jonathan Franzen’s big fat novel Freedom this year, not because I liked it (I didn’t), but because I wanted to prove that I could still immerse myself in a long book and reach the end. Last week, I finally read an article I’d saved from a three-year-old copy of The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr. Called ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, it was like finding a Pret A Manger in the middle of the desert.
The writer describes his own troubles with reading these days, the difficulty of staying focused on long pieces of writing. How he and his friends literary types, voracious book readers, writers-are losing their capacity for concentration and contemplation. As he puts it: ‘Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.’
At first, it sounds comfortingly familiar: we whip through articles, emails, websites, skimming through the information. Even when we print out long articles to read later, there is no proof that we ever go back to them. And here’s why: the internet is reshaping our brains. Scans now show that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex-the part of the brain tied to memory formation and retrieval is actually shrinking in brains that spend a lot of time in front of a screen.
To keep it simple, I’m calling it Laura Bush Syndrome and I’m determined to try and reverse the damage, starting with a P. D. James to limber up. I’m rationing the amount of time I spend on the computer, although I confess, I’ve just added Mr Carr’s blog to my Bookmarks. I’ve vowed to limit myself to one skim a day.
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