JOK Notebook

A Deep Dive

I had heard of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nick Carr, as it received quite a bit of attention when it came out last year. But until this week, when I read an article that I had ripped out of a magazine back then, I didn't realize that the author and I had gone to the same college. Nor had I ever before assessed Joy o' Kanji in light of his arguments.

I still haven't read Carr's book, but it apparently says that because of our Internet use, our ability to concentrate (集中力, しゅうちゅうりょく in Japanese, by the way, which I mention simply because it's a word I like and perhaps because my mind wandered) has dwindled to the point where we have "collective attention deficit disorder." We've become accustomed to absorbing information quickly, and when we read, we jump around in the text, click on links, and even check email a few times.

I do all those things! I've always been an antsy reader, and although I constantly read articles at meals, nowadays I don't read books unless I'm on an international flight or sick in bed. When I do, I struggle like crazy to concentrate, and I'm quick to put the book aside. (Were they always so heavy?)

"Day Dreams" by Paul Fischer

Carr believes that when we read in an uninterrupted way, we make complex connections and develop original insights. By contrast, whenever we read text online and encounter links, images, videos, and so on, it shifts us into the part of our brains (the prefrontal cortext, to be exact) that we use in making decisions. He posits that as long as we remain in a hyped-up mode, moving around quickly, we lack the calmness needed to "make long-term memories or weave the new information into ... previous memories and make interpretations." (I don't know if he also mentions that most of us are amped up on caffeine much of the time!)

Not everyone buys Carr's theories, not by a long shot. But what I've read so far makes sense to me. And his thesis makes me wonder about Joy o' Kanji. How do my essays fit into the picture he has painted?

When I started writing Joy o' Kanji essays, long before there was a site to post them on, I tried them out on readers. People encouraged me to break up the text with quizzes, pictures, and sidebars. 

It was a strange leap for me to take at first, but now the magazine-style layout of Joy o' Kanji essays feels so natural that I can't imagine presenting the information in any other way.

Kanji study can be exhausting. We need frequent breaks.

Short paragraphs help!

Now, what about Carr's point that we need to be calm in order to remember something in the long term. Maybe he's right, but I counter with a few points that come from experience.

• If you're not having fun, you'll ditch kanji study in favor of something easier. (Just about anything else is easier.) Excitement and calmness don't go together. I prefer excitement.

• As I've written in the FAQ in the section "How Will Joy o' Kanji Help Me Learn Japanese Characters?" I believe we're more likely to remember something if we care about it. Enthusiasm, not a meditative state, makes for a memorable time.

• I think memorization is overrated when it comes to kanji study. Of course you want to remember; knowing a character is more convenient than not knowing it, and it's frustrating to draw a blank when you encounter a kanji you've "learned." But Joy o' Kanji is an encyclopedia of sorts. You wouldn't expect yourself to read a whole encyclopedia entry and to remember everything, would you? I see each essay as a reference tool, one to which you can repeatedly turn as needed.

I suppose Joy o' Kanji essays present a paradox, of sorts. They contain lots of quick hits, including sidebars with tidbits of information. But the overall discussion amounts to a deep dive into each character.

This reminds me of something an acquaintance recently asked when I told him about Joy o' Kanji: "Isn't one essay about each kanji way more than anyone would need to know?"

Hmm. It depends on people's goals, I suppose. Students may need to memorize yomi and meanings for an exam. For that purpose, reading a whole essay may not be the most efficient way to go. As for beginners, they have their own kind of antsiness; they need a broad overview more than depth.

But for those of us who love kanji and want to understand all the puzzles and mysteries it contains, there's almost no choice but to dive down into the ocean and examine each passing fish. The deep dive comes close to the immersion Carr described, even if the heart rate is a bit quicker than he might like.

If I'm permitted to switch metaphors (am I?!), thoroughly examining each kanji is like paying attention to the structure of a building—the foundation, the studs, the place where the load falls—not just the house number and paint color! Once you can make sense of the structure, you can find room in your brain for all the other details.

I have as much Internet-induced ADD as the next person, and probably much more. When I'm trying to be extremely disciplined, I stay off Facebook for what feels like forever, finally rewarding myself with a quick glance. I'm horrified to realize that the most recent post was mine and that it happened only seven minutes before. I had even forgotten making it! 

From a 1912 postcard published in Germany.

Kanji exploration is the only thing in the world that can captivate me for long periods of time—like seven minutes at a stretch! And I know that doesn't sound long, but nothing else comes anywhere close.

When I examine a character, I lose myself in the material, much as a dog turns circles in order to plop down for the perfect nap, soon losing herself in the obsessive quest for ... I'm not sure what, but it looks very important!

Each kanji serves as the portal to a world I've never entered, and I feel compelled to answer every question that pops into my mind. To do so, I follow trails that branch off the main trails, and then the paths leading away from those detours.

What a science education these "side trips" have given me in recent weeks! I've written about electron shells (thanks to 殻, "shell"), wavelengths (thanks to 幅, "width"), and the chambers of the heart (thanks to 房, "chamber"). As I wrote about 房, I ended up investigating plant ovaries, plant "locules," and the "calyx" of a flower (the cuplike outermost group of flower parts). 

With these explorations, I made amazing discoveries. It isn't simply random that the English word "crust" (that is, the top layer of our planet) and "crustacean" start the same way. They're etymologically connected, and the same is true in Japanese! Furthermore, both the geological crust and the crust of a lobster have a soft "mantle" beneath them that helps to form the very crust! I figured all this out in the course of writing about 殻.

It's not just the sidetracking that fills me with joy. Walking the main road associated with each kanji stirs me with so much excitement that I feel physically revved up and almost unable to contain a newfound energy.

From the 房 essay, I now know that the chamber of the heart, the chamber (like chambre, or "room," in French) of a house, a prison cell, and a section of an orange have something in common. They're all small compartments. Realizing this helped me see the throughline connecting the many definitions of 房.

I've written elsewhere that each kanji is like a nutshell that I get to pry open, finding what secrets lie inside. Today I'm releasing an essay on shells that gave me a bowlful of nuts to crack! Here's a preview of the new essay 1075 on 殻:

Have a great weekend! Go deep!



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