are we forgetting how to read?

I really enjoyed Ezra Klein’s recent interview with my former colleague Maryanne Wolf, who is a great expert on reading: the neuroscience of this activity and how we learn to do it.

Klein notes in the interview that there are many very different forms of reading, and Wolf discussed two in some detail. Skimming (or scanning, or scrolling) is a type of reading that involves quickly looking over large amounts of text in search of information. In contrast, deep reading means becoming immersed or even lost in an invented world and leaving one’s regular life behind–except that we sometimes push beyond the author’s thoughts, forming connections and making creative leaps beyond the text. Whenever someone reads deeply, the whole brain lights up on an fMRI machine.

These days, people like me constantly practice scanning and scrolling. My phone reports that I do that for more than five hours every day. We reinforce this skill and habit, and our devices are cleverly designed to encourage it further. On the other hand, people like me are losing the habit of deep reading, and our devices discourage it.

Maryanne Wolf’s interview did not exactly alert me to this problem, because I have been explicitly worried about it for several years and I try to counter it. But Wolf and Klein offer a lot of relevant detail and context.

Why should we care? Scanning has many practical benefits, but it promotes confirmation bias (looking for scraps of information that we already agree with) and it is addictive. To feed this addiction may require more confirmation and more excitement–pungent details that reinforce what we already believe. Looking for these rewarding tidbits is like running on a treadmill.

On the other hand, deep reading may teach empathy and broaden the mind by exposing us to someone else’s perspective. Even if deep reading doesn’t educate us, it is still worthwhile. A life should not be completely filled with activities that prepare us to conduct other activities later on. The material of life is time, which should be spent in intrinsically valuable ways–or else, what’s the point of it all? Becoming immersed in a well-crafted fictional or historical narrative (or an elaborate argument) is one of the intrinsically valuable ways of being.

I’d have liked to hear Maryanne Wolf talk about comparable activities. In the interview, she mentions daily meditation and listening to music, and she models an in-depth dialogue with Ezra Klein. To that list we could add performing and composing music or dance, deeply studying works of visual art, making art, tinkering with machines, closely observing nature, and prayer. Some of these behaviors are older than reading and may be less susceptible to being distorted by new technologies. (One of Wolf’s influential points is that reading developed long after language did. Reading is not hard-wired, and people have constructed it in many different ways already.)

I suspect that the close observation of human-made visual objects affords many of the same advantages as deep reading and is threatened in the same way. Just as we scroll text, so we scroll images–risking our ability to see pictures closely. Close attention to works of beauty is a learned skill, and it is affected by the medium and context. It is, for instance, much easier to stare at a painting on a wall of a museum than on one’s phone.

I have great respect for serious meditation, but I am afraid that some versions may function as short-cuts, almost like apps that promise brief relief from the constant flow of information. To meditate seriously can enhance empathy and equanimity and is arguably an intrinsically valuable state of being. But why would we expect that five minutes of listening to one’s own inner voice (or to a recording of someone else) would provide the kind of expansion and “flow” promised by a major novel? We know that a novel will take many hours to read. This time commitment is a benefit, not a cost.

I generally presume that technological change was more rapid in the richest countries of the world between 1800 and 1970 than it has been during my lifetime. Industrial tools transformed life and nature during that period, and the pace has actually slowed since then. However, technology may have changed reading in a more dramatic way in the last decade than it did before. Klein confesses that, as a father of young children, he is often distracted by his phone. That couldn’t have happened to me in the first decade of the 2000s, because I owned no wireless devices. And for our kids (who are still young adults today) the only screens that could compete with books were the TV (with no streaming services) and a desktop computer. Books easily held their own against these possible distractions. I sympathize with parents and children alike if they can no longer concentrate on printed texts.

For me, deep reading (to whatever degree I actually obtain depth) is closely related to writing. My most recent post here was about The Tirukkural, by Thiruvalluvar, which I read too distractedly and disconnectedly but in an effort to read deeply. I don’t think I would have made it through that text or given it as much attention as I managed if I hadn’t begun to envision a written response as I read. The text began to confirm some theories I had formed about it, but it also challenged my theories, and as I read on, my mental draft evolved.

As the Internet age has progressed, my capacity to lose myself in someone else’s narrative has definitely weakened, to my deep regret. However, I can still become completely lost in the act of writing–unaware of how much time has passed or even where I am sitting while I type. For me, deep reading almost always involves writing, as does the close inspection of a work of visual art. I type quickly (albeit with two fingers), but I revise constantly. WordPress tells me that I saved 24 different drafts of the short post on the Kural. Revision is a process of listening to oneself, which can be solipsistic, but I am almost always writing about what other people are saying or have said. In that sense, I think writing is a process of empathy–at least at its best.

It’s possible that I need the idea of an audience (even the possibility of one reader) to motivate writing. That is probably unwise; we should be more self-reliant. Still, writing works for me as a partial path back to serious listening, and we all need one path or another toward that destination.

See also: “signal” (a poem on these theme), “a Hegelian meditation,” “Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin” and “information, news, and meaning” (from 2016).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.