Servants of the overload

We live in an age of too much.

Too much food is choking our arteries. Too much stuff is clogging our landfills. Our rambling McMansions and tanklike SUVs are deepening our addiction to dangerous fossil fuels. America has come to resemble the P.G. Wodehouse character who looked “as if he’d been poured into his suit and forgotten to say when.”

While the perils of our material excess are well known, far less attention has been paid to how this epidemic of too-muchness is diminishing our cultural life.

Most commentators including me make the “too little” argument: We cite studies showing declining participation rates in the arts to argue that Americans don’t read and write enough, don’t avail themselves of the soul-stirring pleasures of art.

I still accept this diagnosis of cultural malaise. But I’m beginning to rethink its cause. I’m beginning to wonder:

Is too much reading killing reading?

Is too much writing killing writing?

Is too much communication killing communication?

Start with books. Recent surveys show that fewer than half of all Americans read at least one work of fiction for pleasure each year. The decline is especially pronounced among teenagers. Many factors have contributed to the trend, but the rise of the Internet is clearly a chief culprit.

Most Web sites are text based, the moving images of YouTube.com and other sites notwithstanding. Surfers are readers. And now that service jobs have replaced manufacturing as the economy’s prime engine, Americans spend much of their working life reading.

My guess is that the average American reads more words in a week than our ancestors read in a month. It’s just that we’re not reading books.

Americans are also writing more than ever. E-mail, instant messaging and text messaging have turned us into a nation of scribes using high-tech gizmos to practice the centuries-old art of communicating with 26 letters and a host of annoying emoticons. 🙁

Novelists often depict Americans as isolated and alienated, cut off from one another. Which leads me to ask: Don’t these people own cell phones? Because of this tinkling technology we’re never alone. The demands of family and friendship are so great that Americans must use every available moment strolling down supermarket aisles, dining at restaurants and bars, speeding down the freeway, one hand on the wheel (sorta) to maintain this steady stream of communication.

The problem, then, is that we are reading, writing and communicating too much. We have replaced quality with quantity, ushering in an era of shorthand culture. Web sites, e-mail and cell phones prize speed and efficiency. They are in-and-out technologies make your point, move on.

Instead of conversing leisurely on the front porch, we communicate through snippets of text and talk. Instead of reading 20,000-word profiles in The New Yorker, we devour 200-word items on Gawker.com.

Shorthand culture is insidious because it looks and feels like the real thing. If we spend all day reading at work, is it any wonder that fewer of us want to tackle “War and Peace” in our free time? If we spend an hour or two a day writing e-mail, do we really want to go home and compose a real letter? If we speak to our loved ones five times a day on the cell, do we still feel the urge to have a meaningful conversation?

The danger here is that we may lose the capacity to recognize what we have lost. It’s akin to writer Dana Thomas’ warning in “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster”: The widespread availability of relatively inexpensive products with designer labels has made us forget what items of real craftsmanship look like.

The surrender of quality for quantity has received attention in the world of music. Thanks to iPods and MP3 technology, we can store thousands of songs on tiny players that make music more accessible than ever. But in compressing music into tiny sound files, sonic detail—the clink of a finger cymbal, a virtuoso guitarist’s subtle fretwork—is lost.

Of course, most of us don’t even know what a finger cymbal sounds like, so the trade-off is a no-brainer. But you’d expect it to matter to such leading classical music and jazz critics as Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times and Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal. Yet in the recent Journal article “The Deaf Audiophile: What’s So Good About Bad Sound? Plenty,” Teachout wrote: “Why do I settle for inferior sound quality? Partly because of the near-miraculous convenience of MP3s.”

Which makes me wonder: If the highbrows have jumped ship, is the battle lost?

As Teachout suggests, convenience is a hallmark of the age of too much. We rely on the Internet, cell phones and MP3s because they seem to make our lives easier. There is no turning back, and I, for one, don’t want to. But as we enjoy the benefits of these technologies, we should remember that reading blogs is not the same as reading books, that e-mail and cell phones are not always the best tools of communication.

If the modern age teaches us anything, it’s this: It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

This column appears in my new book, Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.

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