I get a lot of my information from the web. This shouldn't be terribly surprising when you consider I spend most of my working hours online, although one might find it surprising I spend so many of my non-working hours online. But I think there is a misconception that a novel has implied value because someone wrote a whole book and got it printed.
The big flaw is in that fact that publishers aren't in it for the greater good, but the lowest common denominator. A great novel comes rarely, but a New York Times Best Seller comes along weekly. It is true that there is a level of filtering and editing that gives the publishing business a better product the way a good restaurant produces a better product than grandma's home cooking, but the emphasis is on the word product, not on good.
There is also the belief that if you can sit still and read an entire novel you have bettered your synapses in your brain -- simply by being forced to keep a story straight in your head and visualize the characters and settings, you exercise creative parts of your brain.
My first argument against synaptic calisthenics can be summed up in two words: Harlequin Romances. I would argue that a lot of the pap on the NYT Best Sellers list isn't much more complex than a good bodice ripper. Maybe written at an 8th grade level rather than a 5th but probably at a 5th rather than a 3rd.
My second argument is that I spend a great deal of time exercising my brain, and the Internet is a big part of that. Not just as part of my job translating complex business objectives into technical deliverables (which, as boring as it sounds, take a bit of mental agility), but I would argue that the era of what we're calling social media has a huge give and take.
Obviously most of what goes by in a twitter stream or on a Facebook page is garbage -- but that's true of all human creation. The weekly best sellers are filled with gems but there are thousands of books that didn't make the list because they are mind-numbing crap. Our blogs, Facebook updates and, ahem, "tweets" are all hit or miss because we haven't built really good filters yet like a Twitter reviewer for the Times.
But these unfiltered social media streams are forcing a whole generation to become more articulate using the written word, sometimes in long form emails and blogs, sometimes in the limitations of text messaging, or what I like to call the Sonnet of the Internet.
And about that written word thing, let me jump to the defense of video. Granted, reading versus watching leaves you with better understanding and retention, but we've confused the mechanism of that retention. The written words allows you to back up and re-read a sentence, or stop for a moment and look up a word.
I'll argue that most people don't actually look up words they don't understand, and most people I know who argue strongly for reading novels, seem to skim rather than really read the words in front of them -- it's just too much volume, and honestly, not important enough for them to really invest themselves into the literary nuances, but rather they're getting the gist of the story.
Which is to say that watching a news snippet posted by a friend on Facebook might actually give you more depth than reading the paper. You can pause, you can look up things you don't understand, and you have access to all that reference right there on your computer. No longer do you need a smoking jacket and a dark wood paneled library in your house to be the Professor who can find the answer.
With new media come the arguments that we are becoming more attention deficit; I argue we are becoming more discerning. If we aren't learning or getting what we want out of a medium, we move onto another until we find what we are looking for. When we find it, we hold hugely complex ideas and concepts in our heads.
Take TV in the 70s compared to today, for example. In the 70s the intellectual programs were things like Mary Tyler Moore or M*A*S*H -- quick, 30 minute sitcoms with a little message and no continuity. Now our trash is Battlestar Gallactica or Mad Men -- complex, far reaching story arcs with a message that is so ingrained in the story telling that you don't fell like there's a message at all, but it gives you pause for thought and interesting conversations (perhaps online) later.
The Internet is revolutionary, just as the printing press was. With revolution comes confusion and distrust -- but while we know this is the end of the an age, we can't know where this New Information Age is really taking us. But I can tell you, it's going to be far more different than novels versus movies versus video games.
It's going to change our synaptic connections beyond recognition, so hang on, it might get a little bumpy.