Are print books really about to disappear, overtaken like horse-drawn carriages in the age of Detroit and the Ford Model T? Truth is, nobody knows. Nobody ever really knows what the future is going to hold, no matter how sure they sound in their predictions.
Certainly, for all the fuss made about the Kindle, more than 95% of book buyers are still opting for the print version ... except, possibly, in the hot romance and erotic fiction categories. Earlier this year, Peter Smith, of IT World, noted that "of the top 10 bestsellers under the 'Multiformat' category [of Fictionwise ebooks sold], nine are tagged 'erotica' and the last is 'dark fantasy.'" That's only one list, but it's an interesting side-note that makes sense: just as with the internet and cable television, there's a particularly strong appeal to getting access to what Smith calls "salacious" content without having to face the check-out clerk with the goods in hand.
Nevertheless, the point remains that a greater number of readers are switching over to ebooks in one format or another. So beyond the basic question of "will print books go away" (which I personally doubt, but again, nobody really knows the answer to), the questions I find more intriguing relate to if or how digital reading changes the reading experience and, perhaps, even the brains that do the reading.
Electronic readers like Kindle are too recent a development to have generated much specific, targeted research yet. But a montage of essays titled "Does the Brain Like Ebooks?" that appeared on the New York Times website this week offered some fascinating information and viewpoints on the subject. The collection had contributions from experts in English, neuroscience, child development, computer technology and informatics. And while the viewpoints differed, there was some general consensus about a few points:
1. Clearly, there are differences in the two reading experiences. There are things electronic books do better (access to new books in remote areas of the world, less lugging around, and easier searching for quotes or information after the fact). There are also things print books do better (footnote reading, the ability to focus solely on the text at hand, far away from any electronic distraction, and--oh, yeah. No battery or electronic glitch issues.)
To those factors, I would add two more: First -- I think it's important to remember that Kindle doesn't actually give you a book. It gives you access to a book. For people who don't want to cart around old volumes or make multiple trips to the library, that might be considered a good thing. But at least one potential downside to this feature became painfully clear to many Kindle readers this summer when Amazon reached into its customers' Kindle libraries and took back two books for which the company realized it did not possess the copyright. Ironically, the books were by George Orwell -- including 1984, his book about the perils of centralized information control. Access goes both ways.
Second ... one of the writers of the Times essays, Prof. Alan Liu at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that he didn't think anyone really made serendipitous discoveries while browsing the shelves of a physical library (so losing a physical library wouldn't be a loss, at least in that sense). Perhaps not, because most people go to libraries with specific search goals in mind. But bookstores, on the other hand ... there I'd disagree. I often browse the aisles of my local bookstores, just to see what's new and what might catch my eye. Most of the books I buy, in fact, are items I discovered while browsing ... something that, ironically, electronic "browsers" do not allow.
Browsing, to my way of thinking, is what I do in Filene's Bargain Basement. The clothes there are a jumbled mass. So even if you go in looking, potentially, for a shirt, you might end up with a pair of slacks that just happened to be hanging nearby. Same with a bookstore. Same, in fact, with the print version of the New York Times I get every morning. I scan the pages just seeing what might catch my eye to read. Sometimes it's a photo that catches my eye, sometimes it's a leading paragraph, sometimes it's a headline, and sometimes it's a callout. Or, sometimes, I'll be reading one article and another on that same page will catch my attention--one I never would have sought out on my own. And my knowledge and understanding of the world is far better and broader for all those serendipitous juxtapositions.
Electronic media and browsers have many good qualities, but they're lousy for that kind of unspecific window shopping. Browsers don't browse. They help you do specific searches. Looking for a black coat, or that article Sam Smith wrote two months ago on synthetic sneaker soles? The internet is great. Not sure what you want? Heaven help you. So to lose physical collections of books, either in stores or on individual bookshelves, would make it harder to make those delightful side discoveries that take us out of our narrow fields of focus and interest and, potentially, broaden our minds.
2. In the case of adults, we probably process information similarly in both electronic and print formats ... with two important distinctions. The first distinction is that electronic books, with hyperlinks and connections to a world web of side-roads, offer far more distractions to the reader. In doing a research paper, this can be useful. But it also offers temptations to divert our attention from a deeper immersion in a story or text that our brains are poorly equipped to resist. (Apparently we change tasks, on average, every three minutes when working in an internet-connected environment.)
"Frequent task-switching costs time and interferes with the concentration needed to think deeply about what you read," cautioned Sandra Aamodt, the former editor of Nature Neuroscience and another of the Times essayists.
The second feature of electronic reading, which may compound this first effect, is that there is evidently something about an electronic medium, with its "percentage done" scale and electronic noises or gizmos, that makes us crave and focus on those rewards. Which is probably why electronic games are more addictive than board games. After a couple of rounds of solitaire with real cards, I'm done and ready to move on to something else. But I removed the solitaire software from my computer almost 20 years ago when I realized that I couldn't seem to tear myself away from it, once I started playing.
Is our comprehension and, more importantly, what Proust apparently called "the heart of reading"--"when we go beyond the author's wisdom and enter the beginning of our own," as one of the essayists, put it, impacted by a heightened drive to make progress through a text? If so, that would be a bad thing. So it seems a point worth studying further.
3. Most adults, however, at least have the ability to process longer and deeper contemplative thoughts from what we read, even if we don't always exercise that ability. But according to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and child development specialist at Tufts University, that ability to focus attention deeply and for a concerted length of time is learned, not innate. Children apparently have to develop neural pathways and circuits for reading, and those circuits are affected by the demands of the reading material. Chinese children learning a more symbolic and visual language, for instance, develop different circuits than English-speaking children.
So electronic reading ... especially with hyperlinks and video embeds and other potential distractions, could potentially keep young readers from developing some important circuits. As Wolf put it in her essay:
"My greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps videos (in the new vooks). The child's imagination and children's nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. the attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it."
Interesting enough, the one computer scientist in the group was of the opinion that the best use of electronic books and capabilities was to enhance print books, not to replace them. But it's all interesting food for thought ... and, hopefully, more research as electronic readers find their way into more households and hands.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, cosplay in Paris, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, a train wreck in Pakistan, an airshow over St. Petersburg, Russia, and much more.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
Many veterans are suffering from a condition similar to, but distinct from, PTSD: moral injury, in which the ethical transgressions of war can leave service members traumatized.
Amy Amidon has listened to war stories on a daily basis for almost a decade.
As a clinical psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she works with a multi-week residential program called OASIS, or Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, for soldiers who have recently returned from deployments. Grief and fear dominate the majority of the conversations in OASIS: Amidon regularly hears participants talk about improvised explosive devices claiming the lives of close friends; about flashbacks of airstrikes pounding cities to rubble; about days spent in 120-degree desert heat, playing hide and seek with a Taliban enemy. Many veterans in the program are there seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.