Why Criticism Matters: Translating the Code Into Everyday Language

02anderson-articleInline Sam Anderson on the issue, in the NYT:

I tend to shy away from big, sweeping, era-defining statements. It’s the fastest possible way to be wrong about the world, and usually just an excuse for various forms of sloppy thinking: cherry-picking, scapegoating, doomsaying, fear-mongering, sandbagging, arm-twisting, wool-gathering, leg-pulling. And yet it would be hard to dispute that over the last 5 or 10 years, the culture’s relationship to time has changed pretty drastically. The shift is so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook — a little army of tools that have given rise to (and grown out of) radically new habits of attention. Many of us are now addicted, on the dopamine-receptor level, to a moment-by-moment experience of life that’s defined by a behavior sometimes referred to as “time slicing”: jumping every few seconds between devices or windows or tabs, constantly swiveling the periscope of our attention around and around the horizon to see where the latest relevant data-burst might come from.

Whether this shift is good or bad or neutral is a cripplingly complex question, and very hard to discuss without falling into clichés about the Death of Literature and the Extinction of Humanity and How Google Is Stealing Everybody’s Grandmother’s Favorite Jewelry. (It helps to remember, when you start having these thoughts, that every era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of.)

What we can say, for sure, is that sustained exposure to the Internet is changing the way many readers process the written word. Texts are shorter and more flagrantly interconnected, with all kinds of secret passageways running into and out of one another. This has already changed the way we produce, read, share and digest our writing. Inevitably, it will also redefine what it means to practice book criticism, at least for those of us who aspire to write for something like a general audience.