Sometimes I think we’re living in the end times:

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.”

I wrote my doctoral thesis on digital literacies. There was a real sense in the 1990s that reading on screen was very different to reading on paper. We’ve kind of lost that sense of difference, and I think perhaps we need to regain it:

For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. 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.

We don’t really talk about ‘hypertext’ any more, as it’s almost the default type of text that we read. As such, reading on paper doesn’t really prepare us for it:

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.

Me too. I train myself to read longer articles through mechanisms such as writing Thought Shrapnel posts and newsletters each week. But I don’t read like I used to; I read for utility rather than pleasure and just for the sake of it.

The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn’t surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.

It’s funny. We’ve such a connection with books, but for most of human history we’ve done without them:

Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century. And it’s hardly been crystallized since then. Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated. The writer Clay Shirky even suggests that we’ve lately been “emptily praising” Tolstoy and Proust. Those old, solitary experiences with literature were “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.” In our online world, we can move on. And our brains – only temporarily hijacked by books – will now be hijacked by whatever comes next.

There’s several theses in all of this around fake news, the role of reading in a democracy, and how information spreads. For now, I continue to be amazed at the power of the web on the fabric of societies.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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