“…keeps us turning the pages at breakfinger pace.” So said the
NY Times Book Review of a book by a best selling author—as if it were a compliment.
I swear I am really not after the New York Times Book Reviews, or the particular best selling author whom I actually like, but this comment was the catalyst to the snarky historian in me. Why? Because it deals with those issues of reading and writing, and the dumbing down of our ability to do either.
An NEA 2007 study of reading skills reported “reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.” (Nov. 19, 2007)
Yes, but why, Dr. Norton?
Three articles in Newsweek (June 23, 2010) called “Slow Reading: An Antidote for a Fast World,” by Malcolm Jones, and The Atlantic, July August 2008 issue by Nichols Carr, “Is Google making us Stupid?” and “May I have My Attention, Please,” in AARP’s Magazine’s July/August 2010 issue by Katy Read (in a “light” version), discuss, among others, the impact of the Net on human ability to read and process complex information. (Yes, this is a complex paragraph, on purpose)
That ability, developed since the invention of printing and the wide availability of printed books, is being replaced by a superficial skimming of information on-line. As a result, the skill of reading of books (if undertaken at all) is replaced by the on-line technique of reading at that “breakfinger pace.” As a result, “deep reading” goes out the window along with “deep thinking” about what it is we read.
Or, as The Onion lampooned in its on-line March 9, 2010 issue “Nation Shudders at Large Blocks of Uninterrupted Text,” the readers were shocked and paralyzed by “the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.” No bullet points, no highlighted text—only words—and lots of them.
I had a hunch—so I checked the reviews of several of the works (as in, books), dealing with this subject and guess what—some of the reviewers praised some of the books for being “quick reads,” while others complained that some authors veered into discussing history and the classics, even used “quotes” (!) rather than providing the reader with exactly the information s/he wanted. One may rest one’s case.
Moreover, however, the use of the electronic media, according to knowledgeable folks who study this sort of a thing, is re-wiring the human brain in a way that makes us incapable of processing complex information in conventional texts, i. e,. books and articles.
I recommend reading Nicholas Carr’s article (reminder: it’s in the The Atlantic) in its entirety, particularly Carr’s description of Google’s stated quest to deliver information by programming search engines so that they seek out information efficiently and without ambiguity.
Carr compares this quest for “efficiency” to replace the inefficient human tendency to think and analyze, to the “time-and-motion” studies of F. W. Taylor. That system of “scientific management” had revolutionized world-wide industrial production and dehumanized the workers all in one swoop.
Carr makes the point that “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those worlds set off within our own minds.”
In other words, reading s-l-o-w-l-y a complex text evokes associations and requires an understanding of more than just what the text says (which is becoming a rare skill). Carr points this out in the next sentence that in reading a book in a “sustained, undistracted way …we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”
And it worked for me. As I was reading about Carr’s analogy to Taylor, I was thinking of Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Try to read Hard Time at a breakfinger pace. I guarantee you that what you will miss is that subtlety of his message, the heartbreaking consequences of a world where efficiency and utilitarianism pervert and destroy lives. Or closer to home, try 1984.
How do those fictional worlds differ from our contemporary quest? Carr cites from Google’s mission to develop a perfect search engine which ‘understands exactly what you want and give you back exactly what you want.’ That statement of course brings to one’s mind B. F. Skinner’s famous quote, “The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
It seems to me that the real question is not whether Google’s search engine understands what we want—the real question is whether WE do.
And no, the irony of writing this on-line does not escape me. But I did print out all the information and even have several of them in hard copy. I highlighted certain portions; and it took me nearly 3 hours to write it. And before that, I thought about it. A lot.
I was actually going to share the latest news from a report funded by the Carnegie Corporation, entitled, “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing can Improve Reading.”
In their study, the authors found that
…responding to a text by writing an analysis, interpretation, personal reflection, or summary, or by creating or answering questions, improves comprehension because the act of writing requires that students reflect on ideas presented in the text and put those ideas in their own words. (American Educator, Summer 2010)