Monday, June 16, 2008

The Importance of Reading

Voracious reader that I am, I was dismayed to read in the July/August edition of The Atlantic magazine that reading is so heavily on the decline -- not just of books but of periodicals and newspapers, too. The article, entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", follows the downward trend of reading in America, something that is receiving more and more attention these days.

The author, Nicholas Carr, argues that Google's speed of return and instant access to material makes most folk less inclined to power through a book or even finish reading a newspaper article. Bruce Friedman, a pathologist on faculty at the University of Michigan Medical School, was quoted as saying, "I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print...I can't read War and Peace anymore...I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it" (p. 58).

And, while the internet allows us to read more, it has also changed how we read and process the information. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, stated: "We are not only what we read, we are how we read." Wolf worries that the type of reading the WWW promotes ("efficiency" & "immediacy") may damage our ability to read things really dig into a book and form our own thinking about it. Essentially, the question is whether or not the internet is damaging our ability to really mull over ideas and think deeply about what authors are really trying to share with us.

Apparently, technology can shape the way we think about ideas, altering how we may have thought about the idea without the invention of certain technologies. When Nietzsche bought a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter back in 1882, friends of his noticed that his writing had become "tighter, more telegraphic" than his writing during the pre-typewriter era.

This development of technology was something that disturbed Socrates back in his time. Plato's Phaedrus has Socrates moaning about the development of writing. "He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue's characters, 'cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.' And because they would be able to 'receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,' they would 'be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.' They would be 'filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom' " (p. 63).

After Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, humanists declared that it would make men "less studious" and weaken their minds! And, as Wolf would argue, there is no distinction between deep reading and deep thinking.

I agree with Carr when he says, "If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with "content", we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture" (p. 63). I agree, too, with playwright Richard Foreman's sentiment:

"I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and "cathedral-like" structure of the highly educated and articulate personality -- a man or woman who carried within themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self -- evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available"...[as we are drained of our] "inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance, [we risk turning into] "'pancake people' - spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button (p. 63)."
Trained in the humanities and as a former educator of the subject, I cannot plug often enough the of reading, especially the classics. While a 688 page book like Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo is a commitment and its major themes could easily be picked up in the film version, there is something to be said for reading the unabridged version and mulling around Dumas's humor and his insight into the complexities of the human psyche -- not to mention all the material the film leaves out -- like the fact that the Count had a Turkish slave (gasp!) and dabbled in medicine OR the strains of Orientalism that dot the landscape of its pages like little candles.

I've read the 1455 page War and Peace and delighted in its layers. I dug the dramatic landscape Stegner describes in his 592 page Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Angle of Repose. The point is that reading challenging works helps one to better understand humanity because the themes are so pervasive and largely unchanging.

What the internet deprives us of, then, is the journey and there's something to be said for arduous toil, even in the small act of processing words slowly. As a former yoga teacher once said, "If everything was easy, what would they be worth?"

In our fast paced culture, why not slow down a bit and commit to reading something longer than a few paragraphs on the internet? Why not actually go out and buy the paper and relish in getting ink-stained fingers? Why not spend time browsing through a bookstore or library and allowing your mind to see what's out see what's beyond the internet? I, for one, would rather see humanity dotted with "cathedral-like" minds than flat "pancake" ones.


Patia said...

Guilty. I don't read nearly as much as I used to. I call it Internet-induced ADD.

Kelly said...

So...what book will you pick up next???

Big love and hugs, Kel

Jennifer said...

Hey Kelly,
Really great. I agree you can't read enough!!
Hugs Jen

Kelly said...

Hear! Hear! So, Jen, to what books will you introduce the boys this summer???

Big hugs, Kel

Jennifer said...

Hi Kelly,
Bo is working on The Hardy Boys he has the first seven he's on book one. Rory is reading the Narnia books, he's on book two (with help). And the big kids read out loud to the little kids, usually Dr. Seuss, or we have a bunch of Winnie the Pooh books from a book club I use to belong too. One of my favorite kids books is "you are my I love you" it's super cute, I lost our copy last time we moved but plan on replacing it soon. As for me I am still reading "John Adams" and it's really good.
Hugs Jen

Patia said...

I have about 30 books to pick up next. Like I said, ADD.

Kelly said...

Hi Jen,

Wow!!! What fun the boys will have this summer! You'll have to tell me more about the John Adams book. I heard it fantastic...did you watch the HBO mini-series by chance?

Hi Patia,

Ha! I hear that, chica. I have about 8-10 books library books laying around and more on the way!!! I call my situation an "addiction to reading."

Jennifer said...

Hi Kel,
Didn't catch it yet, but I put it on my netflix list I wanted to finish reading the book first.

Kelly said...

Oooo! Jen, you'll have to let me know how you find it!!! I'm keen to watch/read it, too.

Hugs, Kel