How not to write about reading in 2017

Another day, another screed lamenting the decline of reading at the chilly hands of digital technologies.  This time it comes from one Philip Yancey, and offers a very Washington Post Goth/metal-sounding title: ‘”The death of reading is threatening the soul“.  (It sounds even better uttered out loud in that growling, Cookie Monster voice.)

I’m so, so very tired of these “the internet kills reading” articles.  I’ve been reading them since the 1990s, and very few are actually worth, well, reading.  Those that are count for a great deal with me, as I’m a lifelong bibliophile, recovering literature prof, and passionate reader.  So  Yancey’s plaint offers a good sampling of the many ways this can be done badly.  Oh, let me count the ways:

First, there’s no data at all.  There isn’t any attempt to research the field, or to point to serious studies.  Instead we get anecdotes from one person’s life, and a few pointers to much-criticized books.   Free advice: if you’re going to draw in Nicholas Carr, look instead to Maryanne Wolf.  Carr references her extensively, and her research is both more interesting and objective than his.

Me and one part of one bookshelf in one room of the house.

Me and one part of one bookshelf in one room of the house.  Only 3000 books, alas; I’ve cut down.

(And hey, two can play the writer’s reading life anecdote game.  I read a lot, it seems, partially enabled and even enhanced by digital technologies.  Depending on what I’m reading and my work schedule, I manage about 1-2 books per week, plus a ton of articles, chapters, blog posts, emails, reports, etc.  I don’t think I’ve read anything as long as Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1499 pages in the massive Penguin edition, like unto an old phone book) since I worked through it in grad school during the mid-1990s, but I comfortably manage 4, 5, and 600-page tomes as a matter of course.  Come to think of it, I did enjoy the Chinese classic Outlaws of the Marsh a couple of years back, which clocked in at around 1200 pages all told, so maybe I’m still good.

Technology enables some of this by making texts more easily available.  That is, I read public domain materials from Project Gutenberg on my laptops and a bunch of Kindle ebooks, mostly on my phone.  The digital world also gives me new forms for experiencing reading materials, namely through audio.  Audiobooks and short stories are constant companions when I drive, do housework, and work on the homestead outside.

Technology enhances my reading in a variety of ways.  I get to connect with fellow readers via Goodreads, as well as by folks on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.  I chat about reading with people on several podcasts. Many nonfiction books have poor maps, so I expand my understanding through Google Maps, Wikipedia, and whatever I can find online.  Amazon and many friends connected online do a good job of suggesting readings for me.

Despite my reading in silico, I remain a frequent visitor to any bookstore, library, or archive within reach.  The nearest public library sees me two to four times a week, along with the rest of my family.  I raid the nearest bookshop every few weeks; since I travel a great deal, I hit up whatever bookstore I can find wherever I end up.

So there’s my anecdote.  A single datapoint.  A sample size of exactly one.  May I generalize about human civilization and the fate of culture now?  Back to our target article…)

Second, if we grant the author his unproved, unestablished, apparently entirely subjective point that people (which ones?) are reading (which materials?) less, then we run into the problem that he makes no attempt whatsoever at looking into other explanations for that putative decline.  For example, Yancey doesn’t consider the role of other, non-“digital”* media in competing for our attention, such as tv, which is undergoing a golden age of fiction.  Maybe people are reading less and watching more.  Is anyone blaming a loss of book time on Orange is the New Black? (Anecdote time: my daughter worked in a library four years ago.  She observed that the leading category of checked out items was, by far, DVDs of tv shows.) . Yancey comes close to this, perhaps accidentally, when he lets slip that people spend more time on tv watching than social media practice (“less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1,642 hours watching TV”), but manages to veer back from that topic.

Yancey similarly doesn’t consider changing cultural or personal attitudes driven by non-technological reasons.  Perhaps the gig economy makes it harder to wrest a calm four hours to read, or pressing poverty makes it harder to work through texts.  A fraught political environment could encourage partisans to read more (for information and confirmation) or less (because they’re too busy arguing and organizing).  Maybe an aging population is reading less for a variety of reasons, including greater incidence of eye trouble.  I’m not advocating for these explanations, mind; I just want to point out the flaw in such a narrowly constructed single-factor argument.

It is a bit disturbing that Yancey provides some hard-reading role models for us… and they’re all billionaires.

Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them … set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:• Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.• Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.• Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.• Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.• Arthur Blank…

I know these people lead lives of great busyness, but I think they have other advantages the average reader lacks.  They aren’t the best examples of devout readers for a general audience – unless the intended audience is well-paid professionals and aspirants to the 1%.

He also doesn’t allow for personal changes.  I don’t know Yancey personally, but maybe – just maybe – his habits are altering for other reasons.  He describes a lifelong study of theology; perhaps he’s worn out the field.  People do change tastes, especially over decades.  Again, I don’t know the man, but surely, in the full range of human development, this is something to consider.

Third, Yancey assumes that the online world is one based wholly on short attention spans.  In so doing he ignores digital experiences that work in the opposite way, by fostering sustained engagement.  I’ll grant you the blip-like nature of a single Angry Birds encounter, but insist as well on the importance of people playing other games for hours, even days at a time.  Consider AAA games, or augmented reality games, which are only playable through the exercise of sustained attention.  Or think of other digital media, such as DVD boxed sets or Netflix binge watching.  (Anecdote alert: my family loves to re-watch a single Babylon-5 season over a weekend, or two Peter Jackson extended edition Tolkien films in a row.)   While we can skim through tweets and Facebook updates at lightning speed, we can also dive into a single Kindle book for hours at a time.

reading technologies, a sample from 2015

reading technologies, a sample from 2015

Fourth, the article resolutely avoids any mention of digital objects and services that can enhance our reading experience.  I mentioned some of these above: digital maps, web-based reference materials, online long-form writing, public domain ebooks, and ebooks.  We could also add the way the web makes available some texts otherwise hard to find, especially in the broad world beyond an urban center.

Fifth, Yancey apparently sees no role for digital audio books.  I want to draw this out because it has a few different aspects.  Think of the visually impaired (again, remember America is aging), for whom an Audible or Librivox download returns access to the written (if spoken) word.  Think, too, about how audiobooks and podcast give us chances to read when we physically or ethically cannot: while driving, washing dishes, walking a dog, training across a metropolis, or working out.  I find it curious that most “the internet is killing Chaucer” screeds fail to mention digital audio either as villain or savior.  

Sixth, as with any complaint about a present day experience failing compared to the past, there’s the tendency to romanticize or airbrush history.  Yancey offers us this passage, which is probably supposed to be troubling:

When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links.

Before the Web, did nobody ever read a print text and looked ahead to see how long it was?  Did none of us lift weary eyes from a slogging reading to gaze upon a lovely hillside?  If we couldn’t stray to hyperlinks, couldn’t we slink off to other stories in an anthology, or the ads in a magazine?  Did we never skim or speed read (Evelyn Wood started teaching her method in the 1950s)? These apparently scary glimpses of a silicon-sodden present unfairly let the past off the hook.

I’ve written about this column at length because I think it’s exemplary, but did want to also draw attention to what might be an unusual aspect.  The author concludes by calling on us to read more (good!), then compares that discipline to another one:

I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of Internet pornography.

I haven’t seen many people make this comparison.  Is this intended to take up a culture wars banner from the right wing?  Or is this a nonpartisan warning from a different quarter, drawing on one segment of psychotherapy?   Either way it picks up on the author’s earlier theme about the biology of addition.  Perhaps we’ll see more of this, given the rising interest in addiction through the opioid crisis.

I hope these points are useful in helping people write better reflections on the relationship between technology and reading.  It’s a much more complex and balanced topic than columns like this aver, with fiery slogans like “We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons.” (Again, that would sound better in a death metal growl.)  Denying that reality serves nobody well, least of all those of us who love reading and books, in whichever form we find them.

*I put digital in quotes because people often experience media we don’t think of as digital (music, movies, tv) through digital intermediaries: streaming audio, digital projection in theaters, Netflix, and so on.

(thanks to the indispensable Chris Lott)

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13 Responses to How not to write about reading in 2017

  1. gkreahlingmckay says:

    I agree. I read books from the library. Buy books. Read on my Kindle and on an app on my phone and iPad. I like different ways of reading for different types of books. This “Technology Will Kill Reading” is analogous (in my mind) to Technology Will Kill Learning/Education. Tiresome.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does someone need research findings to have an opinion and speak for themselves? Because that’s what Yancey clearly goes to some pains to make clear he is doing here, talking about his own experience and how he feels and understands how he has changed while, as essayists typically do, assuming that there are probably at least some others out there like him.

    You know I read. A lot. And I have sustained engagements through technology. I’m pretty sold on the solid upside of technology for communication and community, among other things. But Yancey’s experience resonates pretty strongly with me. As I noted in your Facebook thread, I suspect that what Yancey is getting at here is a subset of a problem of noise and distractions of a swathe of modern communications technologies that intrude with more ambient and less-than-critical noise and notifications than before. And he’s clearly thinking, at least in part, about a particularly kind of reading akin to what I recently heard described as “deep work.”

    What’s odd to me is that you are essentially, though you literally mock it early on, basically asserting your own personal and anecdotal experience. Which is fine, in fact laudable…but I wonder why you feel that your own personal experience and engagement is any more representative than Yancey’s? Or mine? If you can be so committed to a particular belief about the effects (or non-effects) of technology and modes and modalities of reading based on your experience, why can’t we?

    As for your points:

    #1 – kind of a non-point. See above.

    #2 – We don’t know that Yancey hasn’t thought about these things but feels, as I do for myself, that those reasons don’t make sense and/or aren’t applicable. I myself have more time and more access to reading material (of a more diverse nature) than ever.

    #3 – Not necessarily the case. Perhaps Yancey is just focusing on the aspect of technology and communication that is most pertinent, relevant, intense, intrusive, etc. I’m well aware of technology that allows for sustained engagement and, in fact, take part in some of them myself. That doesn’t change my assessment of the problem (related: stone walls do not a prison make notwithstanding, I don’t think technology is neutral in effect given reasons of cognition, nature and habits, among other things).

    #4 – Agree with enhancement. Accessibility of texts seems like red herring, countering an assertion not being made by the author.

    #5 – Agree but not sure how it is relevant, exactly, to the article at hand except insofar as the kind of reading I am thinking most about isn’t suited to multi-tasking and the audio format provides other challenges to that kind of reading by virtue of the mechanics.

    #6 – This is unfair, I think. There’s no reason to think that the author isn’t aware that there have always been various kinds of reading. I’m certainly aware of that but again, for me, it’s irrelevant.

    Incidentally, I think the references to addictive behaviors are important because some of that is related to where I think the technological environment can facilitate distraction, at the very least, and is in fact designed to do so…and in doing so might be connecting to particular propensities (natural or learned) that effect some people more than others. Which might explain the difference between those who feel many of the things described in this article (and Yancey and I are not alone in that by any means) vs those who do not.

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    • Greetings and thanks for weighing in, Chris. I wish you’d written about this instead of poor Yancey. As you know, I deeply admire (and benefit from) your reading, your technological skills, and your generosity in sharing both.

      To the first half of your comments:
      Personal experience – agreed, that is his main angle of attack, and perhaps I’m being too harsh… except that he’s also generalizing about the human race (I don’t think that’s too broad), and without much awareness of the difficulty in doing so. Perhaps I’m thinking too politically, or am too enmeshed in my futures work, but I find it hard to take seriously as anything other than autoethnography. If I’m misreading the piece and it really is just autoethnography, then I’ll step back.

      “noise and distractions of a swathe of modern communications technologies that intrude with more ambient and less-than-critical noise and notifications than before.” I guess I have less patience with this than I used to. I used to love that Ray Bradbury story about a man punished for turning off radios and phones (I think he put ice cream in an audio speaker).
      But in 2017, there are heaps of people offering advice on how to manage these distractions. Howard Rheingold’s been writing about this since 2005 or so. To pick a narrow example, I find questions of when to turn on or turn off system tray notifications to be widespread. There are plenty of apps and plugins designed to minimize browser reading clutter, plus a whole wave of web design to do the same (i.e., Medium). Physical ereaders famously prohibit easy multitasking.
      Maybe I’m speaking from too odd a subject position, as I live in a very rural location (which is a small part of the 21st century human experience), and spend too much time out of cell phone range and with limited broadband. Perhaps the author’s experience is more germane.

      My own experience: I assert it in this post purely to respond to his, and to show the limitations of that approach.

      (1/2)

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    • (2/2)
      “#2 – We don’t know that Yancey hasn’t thought about these things but feels, as I do for myself, that those reasons don’t make sense and/or aren’t applicable.”
      I only have this slender reed, this single column, to go on.
      So if he does not rule things out in that text, I can’t infer anything else.
      If he thinks they don’t apply, he should say so, and explain why.
      If he doesn’t have space in the column form, it’s a matter of a very few words to say so.
      Now, if he tried the latter and the WaPo editor cut it, I’ll demur.

      “I myself have more time and more access to reading material (of a more diverse nature) than ever.” Isn’t that great?

      “#3 – Not necessarily the case. Perhaps Yancey is just focusing on the aspect of technology and communication that is most pertinent, relevant, intense, intrusive, etc.”
      See my previous.
      “I’m well aware of technology that allows for sustained engagement and, in fact, take part in some of them myself. That doesn’t change my assessment of the problem”
      Again, I’d rather you write about this. I honestly don’t know what the author thinks. What he wrote is too narrow and skewed.

      “I don’t think technology is neutral in effect given reasons of cognition, nature and habits, among other things).”
      Agreed. Another thing for you to write about!

      “#4 – Agree with enhancement. Accessibility of texts seems like red herring, countering an assertion not being made by the author.”
      Access to texts is a boon that he doesn’t address in a very skewed, weirdly narrow piece.
      Again, balance and breadth are lacking.

      “#5 – Agree but not sure how it is relevant, exactly, to the article at hand”
      Could you build that fortress with audio books? There’s certainly an ancient tradition of oral storytelling to draw upon.

      “…except insofar as the kind of reading I am thinking most about isn’t suited to multi-tasking and the audio format provides other challenges to that kind of reading by virtue of the mechanics.”
      Not even listening to a lecture while hanging up laundry? I find it takes very few neurons to do the latter, or repairing a rock wall, or weeding, or feeding animals.
      Now, some multitasks (if I may) are more demanding. Law enforcement people tell me it’s dangerous to drive with the radio on, or while talking to a passenger. That seems extreme to me, but I concede more of the brain is (should be!) involved in driving a two-ton death machine than in drying dishes.

      “#6 – This is unfair, I think. There’s no reason to think that the author isn’t aware that there have always been various kinds of reading. I’m certainly aware of that but again, for me, it’s irrelevant.”
      Even for someone who repeatedly invokes history and tradition? His narrative is lapsarian, premised on a fall, and, unfortunately, wants to have a fine garden at its head, even if it’s just a personal one. Perhaps I’m holding a WaPo op-ed piece to too high a standard.

      “I think the references to addictive behaviors are important because some of that is related to where I think the technological environment can facilitate distraction, at the very least, and is in fact designed to do so…and in doing so might be connecting to particular propensities (natural or learned) that effect some people more than others.”
      Another topic for you to address. 🙂
      This is a bit of a rabbit hole. Let me Alice in a few steps:
      a) The sex analogy rubbed me the wrong way. As a lifelong atheist, a free speech supporter, and student of history, I tend to react badly to Christians (heck, any religious figures) telling people to avoid sexual thoughts or practices.
      b) I would untangle distraction from addiction. To pick unremarkable personal examples (see?), my cats are excellent at distraction, but I don’t think I’m a feline junkie (although…). My musical tastes can be distractions, depending on my task. In contrast, I gave up a major caffeine habit and a decent alcohol habit cold turkey; *those* were addictions, felt in full power. Etc. Distraction and addiction need separate treatment.
      c) I’m very, very suspicious of the expansion of the addiction model. It’s often a medicalization without science underpinning it, and ultimately crosses more domains than we’re ready to take seriously. I’m with Thomas Szasz in these suspicions.
      More, if our conscious minds such weak epiphenomena because we are that clearly slaves to dopamine, from social media to cell phone pings to gambling to sex to advertising to gaming to personal contact, we need to rethink public health at a radical level, with implications for just about everything. Free speech won’t stand a chance. Public and private spaces have to be redone. I don’t think we’re ready for this… but it’s an interesting future for me to mull.

      Like

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Bryan, did you ever sit around, each with heavy dictionaries in different languages, looking for interesting words, sharing and comparing them? Wouldn’t the internet have jazzed that up?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. App Accessibility Experiences in Higher Education says:

    Ear reading , or audio files have an underrated audience with attention to “vision impaired ” do you see that as changing? I’m curious about the research. Oh, also hypertext/media reading has existed when hyperlinks were realized- hmmm when web browsers were born in the 1980’s?
    When did reading linearly become so _____ (fill in the blank:) ) Thanks for excellent reflections!

    Like

    • I haven’t seen studies about total numbers of the visually impaired turning to audiobooks. I’ve just heard reports of this happening via libraries, bookstores, and publishers.

      Yes, that eeeeeeeevil hypertext! (Don’t tell them about Choose Your Own Adventure books!)

      Like

  5. Not to mention that technology dramatically increases the diversity of reading material available to us, this blog being a case in point …

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  6. Tom Haymes says:

    You column was TLDR – 😛

    Seriously, my general problem is busyness. The Internet has vastly increased the amount of information I need to keep up with. This is both good and bad. It’s good because I can offer a much broader range of information to my information filter and that makes me a better analyst across a broad range of subjects than I ever could achieve in the pre-internet era. It’s bad because it makes it much harder for me to complete lengthy linear narratives (like books).

    I think a classic mistake that these articles make is to conflate reading paper books with a healthy understanding of the uses of narrative. I have cultivated a healthy understanding of the broad range of narratives available to us today. Thank you, Gardner Campbell and the New Media Seminar for launching me on my post-graduate education in this.)

    How many pages of text are contained in a good (and I mean “good”) infographic, for instance? What kinds of stories are told in photography? slide decks? music? web sites?

    I, too, am an avid reader but I define that broadly into a consumer of good narrative, whatever form that comes in. Reading is an important component to that but I’m increasingly aware of denigrating the other forms of good narrative out there at the expense of reading. If you just read you are functionally illiterate in the forms of visual communications available to us in the digital world and how they differ from the imposed linearity of the printed book. They also open up vast new vistas of storytelling that need to analyzed and understood (I think someone wrote a book on this recently….). I am constantly confronted by people with poor understandings of how these narratives impact their lives. It’s a bit like a Kindergartner experiencing the nuances of Tolstoy, sometimes.

    I enjoy the richness offered by today’s world but my problem is time, not desire.

    (How the hell do you get through 2 books a week??? I guess the time you spend in departure lounges makes a big difference….)

    (Now back to the last 50 pages of Vinge…..)

    Like

  7. Frank Hudson says:

    One tangential thought in this post that bares repeating: the conflation of art using words, with the practice of reading words, silently, alone, on paper. Words are not only and alone counters for thoughts, they can be occasions for communal experience (drama, concerts, readings), musical expression (songs, chant, rap, spoken word, traditional bardic and lyric poetry), parts of a larger whole (dialog in TV or movies, libretto) or just a pleasing sound caressing the ear (lovers talk, the sounds of friends murmuring in another room).

    Proponents of reading words silently, alone, on the page can point out there are experiences and effects this way of experiencing words are most conducive to, but they seem to reject unthoughtfully the possibility that other things are lost in that translation.

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