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I'm A Packer Backer

George Packer has taken some heat for mourning the way new media have crowded out time for books:

Marc Ambinder, The Atlantics very good politics blogger, was asked by Michael Kinsley to describe his typical day of information consumption, otherwise known as reading. Ambinder’s day begins and ends with Twitter, and there’s plenty of Twitter in between. No mention of books, except as vacation material via the Kindle. I’m sure Ambinder still reads books when he’s not on vacation, but it didn’t occur to him to include them in his account, and I’d guess that this is because they’re not a central part of his reading life.

And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head. The other day I had to reshelve two dozen books that my son had wantonly pulled down, most of them volumes from college days. I thumbed idly through a few urgently underlined pages of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a book that electrified me during my junior year, and began to experience something like the sensation middle-aged men have at the start of softball season, when they try sprinting to first base after a winter off. What a ridiculous effort it took!

Speaking for the techno-utopian set, Matthew Yglesias fires back:

A person who chose to never read a single piece of post-1960 fiction could still live a rich and full life. He could even adopt a sneering attitude toward people who insisted on reading new novels. And people who subscribe to cable television (later: DVRs). And people who buy VCRs (later: DVD players). And people who read blogs (later: Twitter feeds). But what does it really amount to? To take advantage of new opportunities to do new things means, by definition, to reduce the extent to which one takes advantage of old opportunities to do old things. One shouldn’t deny that the losses involved are real—of course they are—but simply point out that it’s unavoidable. To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

Yglesias is missing Packer's point. Packer is not making a version of the complaint that "nobody listens to records anymore and records are really cool." He's saying that he and many of his friends are reading fewer books and are unhappy about that fact. People who have DVRs don't complain about the fact that they don't watch their VCR anymore. Their unhappiness suggests that something more is going on here than people substituting a newer and better technology for an older one.

Packer is suggesting two factors at work. First, there's so much information to keep up with, as emails and blog posts and Twitter messages keep flying in, that people find themselves on an information treadmill they can't get off. Second, the constant imbibing of this information can alter our mental habits in such a way as to make long-form reading more difficult even when we do have the time. That's the point Packer is making when he says that he pulled out a volume of Kierkegaard and couldn't believe he had once been able to immerse himself in it. Maybe twentysomethings have managed to avoid this. Packer's complaint rings true to me.