. blog —

By Ed Halter

As if taking a one-man stand against the alleged decline of bibliophilia in the digital age, Charles Broskoski read 356 books in 400 days, ending his own personal Reading Olympics in early 2008. If that doesn't sound grueling enough to you ADHD types, consider this: the books he perused were a collection of O'Reilly tech-guide e-books downloaded as a single torrent in late 2006: fat tomes with such alluring titles as Linux Device Drivers, XSLT Cookbook, Essential System Administration and ASP.NET in a Nutshell. Conceiving the daunting task as an endurance performance entitled Computer Skills, Broskoski took notes on every book he read, and later posted them to his website in both .txt and .pdf formats. Perhaps inevitably, his notes begin as detailed commentaries, but later devolve into sketchy exasperation and sideways minutia: "the photo for the chapter on DVDs is an image of a title screen for a movie called El Masko" reads one of only three comments Broskoski made in response to Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Second Edition by David Pogue, thumbed through as volume number 212. Last month, for the Parsons School of Design show at the Chelsea Art Museum, Broskoski mounted further physical evidence: 356 physical copies of the books he read, happily donated to the show by the publisher. Seeing the multicolored monolith of paperbacks assembled together makes for a humbling monument to the sheer amount of information available online. Broskoski's super-sized 400-day book-binge, after all, comprises only an infinitesimally small portion of the networked era's ever-expanding universal library. -- Ed Halter

Image: Charles Broskoski, Computer Skills (Notes from Performance), 2008

— Share this Article —


Paddy Johnson 7 years, 5 months agoReply

This reminds me of A Boy Name Thor, which was a blog where Jason Corace wrote a song a day for I can't remember how how many months…I don't think the project is online any more.


Vijay Pattisapu 7 years, 5 months agoReply

Great review, Ed.

On page 4 of the-decline-of-bibliophilia article you cited ( http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2007/12/24/071224crat_atlarge_crain?currentPage=4 ):

"In a recent book claiming that television and video games were 'making our minds sharper,' the journalist Steven Johnson argued that since we value reading for 'exercising the mind,' we should value electronic media for offering a superior 'cognitive workout.' But, if Wolf's evidence is right ['Wolf recounts the early history of reading, speculating about developments in brain wiring as she goes. For example, from the eighth to the fifth millennia B.C.E., clay tokens were used in Mesopotamia for tallying livestock and other goods. Wolf suggests that, once the simple markings on the tokens were understood not merely as squiggles but as representations of, say, ten sheep, they would have put more of the brain to work. She draws on recent research with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that maps blood flow in the brain during a given task, to show that meaningful squiggles activate not only the occipital regions responsible for vision but also temporal and parietal regions associated with language and computation. If a particular squiggle was repeated on a number of tokens, a group of nerves might start to specialize in recognizing it, and other nerves to specialize in connecting to language centers that handled its meaning.'] , Johnson's metaphor of exercise is misguided. When reading goes well, Wolf suggests, it feels effortless, like drifting down a river rather than rowing up it. It makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone. Ruskin once compared reading to a conversation with the wise and noble, and Proust corrected him. It's much better than that, Proust wrote. To read is 'to receive a communication with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately.'" (my emph.)

How does it follow that the metaphor for exercise is misguided? The author appears to assume that electronic media are somehow requiring more (or always the same amount of) mental effort the deeper we get into that lifestyle.


ed halter 7 years, 5 months agoReply

Johnson's book assumes that the kinds of problem-solving cognitive activity in videogames and some television (24, et al) is a form of mental exercise, and therefore makes the brain "stronger." Crain's point, via his review of Wolf's study, is that the brain activity / muscle activity metaphor is not correct. Not all kinds of metal activity are necessarily improving over time–videogames may keep too much of your mind active, and reading may provide a different kind of activity that allows for a more productive contemplation.

This is a restatement of crain's argument, not necessarily an endorsement, but I do think it's a provocative idea. something about Johnson's argument always seemed like wish-fulfillment to me–"guess what, candy and cigarettes are really good for you!"

Vijay Pattisapu 7 years, 5 months agoReply

I'm not completely convinced of the assumption that all tv/video games(/internet/new media/etc.) involve a static amount of brain power as opposed to the declining base requirement of reading.

For example, watching baseball requires progressively less and less mental effort to watch over time. If you know the game well you can leave a game on on the TV while you work. Or start "productively contemplating" the game and write books like Men at Work or Moneyball or become a sabermatician, I donno…

As for video games, I think there are strategy games like Starcraft that require less and less base mental effort to engage in over time…

… just considering the possibility of counterexamples …

Vijay Pattisapu 7 years, 5 months agoReply

And of course if you reeeally get into baseball, you just might get smart enough to become President. :P

ed halter 7 years, 5 months agoReply

Johnson, fyi, does not make this claim wholesale for all TV and videogames. In fact, his argument is that both TV and videogames have been getting "better" (for him, more complex and puzzle-solving-y).

Vijay Pattisapu 7 years, 5 months agoReply

Wolf and some new studies on the Internet's effect on the brain in the latest Atlantic:

And TV reduces alpha brain wave activity because things like sudden change in scene, panning, zooming, etc., drain blood from the brain to the body as a fight-or-flight reflex. Prolonged and frequent exposure permanently reduces the brain budget. The web often does the same.

And so on. I guess many of these studies find out the obvious.