Books, the cheapest gym you’ll ever join

06/10/2010 12:00 AM |

I used to always keep books on my nightstand, sometimes two or three stacked atop one another, their soft covers curled or frayed at the edges, with water stains and makeshift bookmarks adorning their sides.

They would sit amid wine and water glasses and an inhaler. I even had a nice little tradition in the winter of reading random passages from my favorite book, “Moby Dick,” as if it were the Bible. Those were good times. And they’ve been slipping away.

I think this was the first winter I never opened “Moby Dick.” I even went on a few weeks back and ordered myself a new copy of the collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories I used to carry everywhere in college. I was thrilled when I got it in the mail, but that night I couldn’t get much beyond the first few paragraphs of any of the stories. It seemed the spark had gone out since those college years. But how could that be? This was Hemingway!

I’m now starting to think I figured out where that reading spark went: into my laptop computer. In just a year or two, I’ve come to tote this company-issued Apple MacBook around as if it were a bag of sugar doubling as a baby in a high school parenting exercise.

I have it open at breakfast on weekends. I keep it nearby in the evenings while I watch TV on the couch. I’ve even begun to bring it into the bathroom, sorry to say.

But last month, I heard a National Public Radio segment about a book that makes the case that technology is training our brains to process information in a whole new fragmented and superficial way. It was then that I began to look to my computer as the reason for my lack of focus.

I have since started to make some changes in my life, as the NPR guest, who wrote the book, suggested we do. For one, I’ve been making an effort to sit at night with The New York Times, promising myself that I will actually read some of those 2,000-word stories to their ends. No matter what.

It was good timing. From a massive cover story in The Times just this week, I learned that juggling e-mails, text messages, Facebook posts and other information can indeed “change how people think and behave.”

“The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive,” the article reads. “In its absence, people feel bored.”

But this wasn’t a 140-character post. And at times it was tough for me to get through the story. I wanted to step off that treadmill. The boredom was wearing me down. But I fought the urge and learned a lot. And when I’d finished, I felt good, just like after a workout.

That may be what we’re all coming to, putting aside time for books and newspapers, or even some alone or family time — time away from technology — as a form of mentally working out.

I have resolved to do just that, seven days a week. Not so much because I think my brain is frying, but because it feels good to take that break. And because I miss my old routines.

Now where did I put that Hemingway book?

Michael White is the News-Review editor. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.