Oh no! I have woken up to a startling and somewhat terrifying realisation. I think I have forgotten how to read.
Not totally, of course, but as a result of reading this fantastic article by Michael Harris, I, like him, recognise that I have slipped without noticing into a different kind of reader from the one I used to be. This strikes me as being of genuine concern.
You should read the full article yourself. You really should. But in case you haven’t the time or the energy, let me see if I can add value here by pulling out some of the juicy bits for you (because that’s how we prefer to have our information dished up, right?).
“Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.
Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.
Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”
“Yes!” he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”
“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”
He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”
For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride.
But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.
Even Eric Schmidt, the erstwhile chief executive of Google, was anxious about the mental landscape he was helping to cultivate. He once told Charlie Rose: “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.” In fact, there’s a great deal of reporting now – from neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield and Gary Small – to show that digital native brains do engage in concretely different ways from those of previous generations. Spend 10 hours a day staring at screens and – yes – your synapses will adapt.
For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.”
He goes on to talk about his concern that as he evolves into a more cynical reader, looking for brevity, sensitive to things which might anger, searching for things which are useful and can be easily shared……might he be evolving into a more cynical writer?
The piece finishes on a note of hope: that we can relearn how to read.
“So maybe that change into a cynical writer can be forestalled – if I can first correct my reading diet, remember how to read the way I once did. Not scan, not share, not excerpt – but read. Patiently, slowly, uselessly.”
I can so relate to this. When was the last time you read a book which took you somewhere so interesting, so colourful and so refreshingly different to your everyday life, that you wanted it never to end? The last time I can recall was a couple of years ago when I read the second volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. That feeling of luxuriating in a book somehow feels like a guilty pleasure, whereas I can recall when that was the way I felt every time I read a good book.
As Harris says, I don’t feel as though I’m reading less. I’m reading less well. And I doubt I was ever that good at it anyway.
When my daughter Emma was applying to Universities to read English, we attended an Open Day at nearby Exeter University. We sat in on a sample lecture given by Professor Philip Schwyzer. The idea of the lecture was to demonstrate how they go about teaching “Deep Reading.” The professor did this by taking a single Shakespeare sonnet, which he proceeded to dissect for one hour. The deep levels of meaning that he uncovered was quite extraordinary. Emma and I sat there completely riveted, to the point of occasionally elbowing each other in the ribs with looks of astonishment. We came away breathless with excitement, and on arriving home immediately set about doing our independent analysis of another sonnet and then comparing notes. Not exactly standard Saturday afternoon activity in our household, but such was the power of this new skill we had been taught. And not one which I make myself apply now, sadly.
How dysfunctional has it become? One example which springs to mind is the advert which keeps popping up on my Instagram feed offering me an app which will give me a digest of 4 major titles per day. Apparently because CEO’s read 60 books per year, this will make me into a CEO. No thanks. Love to see how much value I can get out of a precis of 4 books per day. The very idea has me feeling like a French goose in the foie gras regions.
It seems to me this is another nail in the coffin of civilisation. A society that can’t read properly will soon be unable to write properly. And we’re halfway there on that one anyway: in Finland they’ve taken spelling off the school curriculum, which means it won’t be long until we won’t need to use a pen any more. We all know we’re useless at listening, so that only leaves talking. I expect we’ll stop doing that before too long too. At which point we might as well retreat to the caves.
Call to action: resist the slide towards bad reading. Buy a book (yes, a physical one made out of paper, so you don’t need a power source or a screen and can read it in bed and in the bath), and read it slowly, allowing the images to build and pausing to reflect as you go so that you understand the meaning.
My book “My Job Isn’t Working!” will be published July 10th. Wish me luck with that one.
Thank you David Kanigan for alerting me to the article via your excellent Blog Live and Learn, in which you keep us lazy internet grazers up to speed with what we should be paying attention to.
Image WINNIE T. FRICK