Saturday, June 07, 2008

In The Atlantic: the decay of reading?

I don't mean that people don't read any more, the factoid with which fluffy-haired tv journalists like to scare us on a slow day. No, the July/August "ideas issue" of The Atlantic has an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes).

But the really interesting part of the article occurs at the beginning, when the author, Nicholas Carr, has this to say about his current reading habits:
My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case any more. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. . . . What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. . . . My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances--literary types, most of them--many say they're having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

This is unnerving. As we used to say in grade school, I resemble that remark. I thought that being distracted just signified an epic case of procrastination, but even in reading long blog posts, I've become the master of the topic sentence, skipping from paragraph to paragraph. Isn't the genius of New Kid's Random Bullets of Crap concept (I think she invented it) [Edited to add: It was actually Ianqui who invented this. Thanks, Dr. Virago, for mentioning that in the comments.] is that it's perfect for blog posts on days when you don't want to write a Henry Jamesian disquisition on what you're thinking?

Or--here's a contrarian view--is this kind of reading maybe just efficient? If Francis Bacon was right that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested," and we have more reading than ever to taste these days, doesn't it make sense to skim some things? And on the admittedly many occasions recently when I've skimmed something and forced myself to go back and read every sentence, guess what? There was usually enough repetition in the text, with extra examples and the like, that I'd gotten the main points the first time around anyway.

But "deep reading" really is a better system; for one thing, it feels less frantic than moving from point to point, topic to topic. What disturbs Carr, and what disturbs me, is that "deep reading" isn't the default any more; skimming is. Have you found this to be true, too?

I'd tell you about the rest of the article, but, in truth, I can't. I just read the first couple of pages and skimmed the rest.


Sisyphus said...

Ugh. I had thought this was just a product of grad school burnout --- I noticed it really strongly after doing _too deep_ of reading while cramming for my field exams.

Yes, it is disturbing ---- if neither the students _or_ the teacher has read and really pondered deeply the text, how will the class be able to move beyond surface observations and pat remarks? What if politicians and political problem-solvers only skim over the knotty dilemmas they are supposed to be dealing with?

Oh, wait. We got that already.

The_Myth said...

I think it's naive to think this is a new phenomenon.

Or that the Web is to blame.

I think that this style of reading is just more useful with certain genres of writing. Blog posts are essentially long-winded stream of consciousness word-vomits. [Ok, not always, but do any of us take the time to tighten the prose and revise for print the way we would for something for publication or grading?] It's easy to skim it and get the basic point. Or miss it completely.

If we're now reading different genres with more regularity, perhaps the shifts many of us see are just related to that change. I could see the same happening with someone in the 1970s who read too many popular magazines. I'd suspect literary types spent limited time with similar genres while spending a great deal of time with those bothersome tomes of Literature-with-a-capital-L. They just had more skill with the latter type.'s not the medium causing the shift, but rather way it's presented.

Just a thought.

undine said...

Sisyphus, I thought about this when I was listening to coverage of the primaries. You'd get someone on the radio who was so filled with spin that not one actual piece of information ever emerged from the rhetoric--good preparation for being in the White House, now that I think about it.

the_myth, that's a good point about magazines accomplishing the same thing, the diminution of attention. I wonder if Benjamin Franklin's contemporaries didn't have similar screeds about those pithy apothegms of Poor Richard destroying the ability of people to follow longer arguments.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm skeptical of any predictions of massive changes in reading habits. Such changes *do* happen, but I think they take a much longer time to happen, and even in the electronic age I don't think our paradigm shifts are really quite as fast as many people like to claim (for good or for ill). And when change does happen, it often precedes the technology that appears to make it happen. The Myth's example of popular magazines is a good one -- how different is the web from them? And to go further back, the printing press was a major technological change, but it really enable things that were already happening before it. *Paper* actually allowed for an expansion of book production and literacy in the 15th century before the press and movable type intensified the effect.

And genre matters, too. I read blogs in a manner different from the way I read books, magazines, journal articles, etc. Heck, I read different blogs, different books, different magazines, different journals differently.

But maybe the internet is making us aware of changes already taking place?

Oh, and point of fact, it was Ianqui in the Village who invented Random Bullets of Crap -- New Kid frequently borrows it, though.

undine said...

Thanks, Dr. Virago, for letting me know that Ianqui was the one. In my mental map of the blogosphere, Ianqui and New Kid are in the same region, although IRL they clearly are not.

Professor Zero said...

To read whole books nowadays, I go to inefficient countries where speed is impossible.

Horace said...

While I will second the thoughts of Myth and others, I will note that this has, if not implications for our own reading, then perhaps for our students. They have become more accustomed to sound-bite information than many of us were, and the web is part of this, as is powerpoint, magazines, news-tickers on tv...the list goes on.

Some of this is reproduced in teaching. And while I don't always think it leads to worse thinking (students are as adept as ever at keeping multiple ideas in the air at once), it certainly makes certain kinds of assignments more difficult.

Of course, I also think we romanticise our own deep reading experiences, by a) imagining that our pleasurable deep reading experiences were exemplary of our peers, and b) imagining that those deep reading experiences were much easier or less of a struggle than they were. I know I bitched about long novels as an undergrad...

Finally, not to hijack the thread, I also think some of this has to do with capitalist-culture efficiency mandates. The whole InfoTech drive toward high performance asks us (along with our computers) to be faster, more effective, and more efficient. Though deep reading is often more effective, it's rarely efficient, and certainly not faster. So we feel permitted to do less of it (but bemoan the fact afterwards).

undine said...

Professor Z, maybe we need to have inefficiency days here where we'll be forced to read more, though I hate the way that sounds.

Horace, you have a point. There's a built-in inefficiency to most things that we'd consider worthwhile--writing, for example. Our culture doesn't tolerate that very well, however.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not the necessity of people to consistently read in depth and develop an advanced vocabulary, but know how to read passages and research when the necessity is called upon.

Looking back in America's history, it's easy to visualize and even predict that technology is going nowhere but up. In a hundred years alone we have progressed from flying in the air for an "astounding" several seconds to developing microchips smaller than the eye can see capable of doing tasks our own home computers can accomplish.

It is inevitable that technology is going to go nowhere but up and that in certain scenarios it will be required to have an in depth understanding of what we are involved in. So instead of devoting our day to day lives in a sophisticated level of literacy, we should understand how to extract the material from what we are reading when the time comes to it.