You Say Staccato, I Say Sfumato: A Reply to Nicholas Carr

6/13/08Follow @wroush

One of my prized possessions is an enormous book called Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Drawings and Paintings. You know how a lot of old art or history books have a few glossy color plates bound into the center? Well, this book has 695 of them, each one measuring about 12×18 inches, and together they weigh an incredible 19 pounds, enough to put a permanent sag in my coffee table.

When the publishers put “complete” in the title, they weren’t kidding. If you want to see how Leonardo grew as a draftsman and painter between the time of his earliest known works, around 1472, and his death in 1519, there is no better source. Of course, with so much to offer, the book encourages grazing. You can’t help turning the pages to see how the chaotic theatricality of The Last Supper gave way to the sfumato serenity of the Mona Lisa, executed only a few years later. (Sfumato, from the Italian for “smoky,” is the term for gradations in shade, like those in the Mona Lisa’s cheekbones, that are so smooth as to be imperceptible.) With a book this large—many of the reproductions are larger-than-life—you don’t have to see the actual paintings in Milan or Paris to be overpowered by Leonardo’s genius.

Yet I have a feeling that this would trouble Nicholas Carr, whose provocative article for the July/August issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, was published online Wednesday. The article, which is only obliquely about Google, argues that the hyperlinked structure of the Web encourages staccato reading and staccato thinking. On the Web, Carr asserts, it’s so easy and so tempting to flit from page to page that people who use the Internet extensively lose the ability to hold a thought, to analyze an issue with any depth, and ultimately to construct a personal interpretation of the world. When we consume information online, Carr writes, “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

Mona LisaWhat objection could Carr have to my Leonardo book? To the extent that it packs the man’s entire visual oeuvre into one volume, it’s just like the Web, which brings all the world’s information to one place (your browser window). But each Leonardo canvas is worth deep, protracted study—up close and in person, if you can arrange it. Indeed, if we were all credentialed art historians or wealthy world travelers, this would be the surest path to true art appreciation. The book lets me short-circuit that laborious process and flip from painting to painting. From one perspective, then, you could say that photography, color printing, binding, and all the other technologies that brought the Leonardo book into my living room are intellectually impoverishing; the encounters they foster are far more casual than a visit to the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie (where The Last Supper continues to deteriorate) or the Louvre.

But that perspective is a narrow and crabbed one, in my opinion. I can accept Carr’s premise that the Internet discourages deep reading. After all, it’s a strain to read long documents on most types of screens, and time spent on the Net is undeniably time taken away from other pursuits (though I suspect that TV viewing has suffered more in this respect than book reading). But the idea that deep reading is the only way people form rich mental connections is much harder to swallow, and suggests to me that Carr may be too caught up in the romantic image of the poet or professor lost in his book. I think he misses the many other ways in which these connections arise—some of which, believe it or not, are happening right on the Internet.

Take, for example, some of the online learning and reference tools I’ve written about in this column, such as Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope. The depth and detail of the image databases brought together in this virtual planetarium are nothing short of astonishing, and as a platform for both solo exploration and prerecorded lessons, the program promises to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewkoyfman Andrew Koyfman

    Looks like a great article Wade, but I flitted away to some hyperlinks half way through :-).

    Actually, I did read the entire piece. I think that the way we interact with printed text is quite different from how we interact with online text. Personally, I’ve been noticing that I read much slower (which also means more carefully) when the text is printed. So, for reading for pleasure I vastly prefer printed text. But for gathering information, initial breadth is often far more valuable then depth. Otherwise, how will you know what you don’t know.