Nicholas Carr's new book The Shallows argues that multitasking and Internet-fueled distraction are reducing our ability to focus on sophisticated linear arguments. This view has clearly struck a chord, winning nods from the blogosphere and the Colbert Report. Even those who love multitasking admit it's changing our lives in striking ways.
But what if it's nothing new? Elizabeth Drescher spells out the case in an essay for Religion Dispatches. She finds that highly distracted, fragmented reading is not exclusively a 21st century innovation--it goes back to the Middle Ages. She explains:
The medieval books we admire so much today are distinguished by the remarkable visual images, in the body of a text and in the margins, that scholars have frequently compared to hypertexted images on internet "pages." ...
Engaged by brilliant illuminations; challenged by reading in Latin, without spacing between words, capitalization, or punctuation; and invited into the commentary of past readers of the text, medieval readers of Augustine, Dante, Virgil, or the Bible would surely be able to give today's digitally-distracted multitaskers a run for our money. The physical form of the bound book brought together all of these various "links" into one "platform" so that the diverse perspectives of a blended contemporary and historical community of thinkers could be more easily accessed.
Her long, complex, eloquent essay touches on a variety of aspects of medieval literary culture--including a comparison of the Book of Hours to YouTube--and is worth a full read here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.