“Networked thought” — truth or delusion?

My friend Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has a thoughtful post up about how he hardly reads books any more, and mostly does his reading on the Web, through blogs and other online media. In the post, he wonders whether this is just for convenience — or whether it’s because the actual way that he thinks has changed into something non-linear, to the point where reading books just isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be.

This is something I’ve thought a fair bit about as well, and I recall talking to Paul Kedrosky about how few books I read any more. Like Scott, I’m a literature major, and have shelves full of books that I have read (and want to read). And I still do read books — but mostly at the beach or the cottage, or other places where there’s no Internet access. Is that something to be ashamed of, or is there more to it than that?

I think the most common criticism of people who do all their reading on the Web is that they are like moths, flitting from flame to flame, never stopping in one place long enough to actually think something through. In this view, the Web is a medium designed for those with short attention spans. The other perspective, however, is the one that Scott is advancing: that the Web enables you to connect thoughts and ideas that you might not otherwise have had, and therefore is actually of more value rather than less.

I think about how reading the newspaper is an inherently unsatisfying experience in a lot of ways now, because when I read something that triggers a thought or idea, or a desire for more information, I can’t just click it and do a Google search. Does that mean I’m not giving the story the attention it deserves? Hardly. I think if anything it makes it easier to use an article as a jumping off point for further thought and discussion. Reading books feels awkward in part because — as Jeff Jarvis described in a Guardian piece he wrote — they’re not connected to anything.

Obviously there’s always time for relaxation and thoughtful reflection, and there’s a time for escapism as well, and books are great for both of those things. But when it comes to consuming information and trying to connect it to other information as a way of generating ideas or coming to conclusions, nothing beats the Web — except maybe a great conversation with friends over dinner and drinks, of course 🙂

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