Can you read? You’re reading this, so, yes – of course you can. But can you read as well as you used to? I know I can’t. It’s not that I’m not reading. In fact, I’m probably reading more than ever. My problem is with reading books – and I know I’m not the only one.
Writing for the Globe and Mail, Michael Harris confesses all:
“Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.
“Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.”
Note the giveaway phrase: “turning, one evening, from my phone to a book…”
Harris argues that reading from our screens is impairing our ability – or, at least, our willingness to read from books:
“…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…
“…So, I throw down the old book, craving mental Tabasco sauce. And yet not every emotion can be reduced to an emoji, and not every thought can be conveyed via tweet.”
The brevity and ephemerality of tweets and texts may be a reason why we ought to read books, but is it why we’re less able to?
Some people think the impact of digital on our reading habits goes well beyond the distraction effect of social media (that great thief of our undivided attention). The theory is that our very brains are being rewired:
“…there’s a great deal of reporting now – from neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield and Gary Small – to show that digital native brains do engage in concretely different ways from those of previous generations. Spend 10 hours a day staring at screens and – yes – your synapses will adapt.”
Harris goes on to quote Eric Schmidt, a former CEO of Google:
“He once told Charlie Rose: ‘I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.’”
As we’ve noted before, Schmidt is not the only big tech luminary to express concern about the impact of digital on human cognition.
The new technology isn’t solely to blame. Too many books are basically articles padded out to book length; so it’s no wonder we lose patience with them. Admittedly, many articles are tweets padded out to article-length, but because we increasingly consume these shorter items online, we can instantly act upon our frustration – either clicking elsewhere or using some form of online interaction make our feelings known.
Books, however, are resolutely non-interactive – at least not in a public sense. Any input from the reader is limited to his or her private thoughts (or scribbles in the margin).
Reading a book, even when not a frustrating experience, is a humbling one. The reader is required to sit down, shut up and pay attention to someone else.
In the age of the selfie, that might just be the biggest problem.