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.
(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.
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)