Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring…. So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.
When I think about it, my ability to “read deeply and without distraction” is not impaired at all when it comes to 9,000 word articles in Harper’s or The Atlantic on, say, trends in urban crime, thick with policy analysis and statistics, or for that matter, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” It’s just when I try to read Proust, or heaven forbid, JR by William Gaddis—a novel that I greatly anticipated reading, but which quickly became a coaster for the glass of water on my bedside table.
A more important question, I think, is why our brains now seem to better tolerate nonfiction. Regarding Proust in particular, Carr’s argument is, for me, especially ironic: The way that I have found to actually read those long complex sentences is, in fact, to skim them—to ride along on the surface from one detailed, beautiful image of village life to another, without trying to unpack them too literally or rationally.