Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The future of reading?

I keep seeing online references to a book entitled “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr and so today I checked it out via the “look inside” feature on Amazon. The author argues that the internet is changing not only what we read but how we read and also how we think. We know this about children because of the Digital Immigrant/Native article.

Mr. Carr, however, notices a change in his own reading processes, and he’s definitely a digital immigrant, having been born in 1959. He found, after a decade or so of spending the majority of his reading time online, that he is no longer able to concentrate on longer spans of text, such as books. He gets distractible and impatient after 2 or so pages of text, and feels much more comfortable scanning and skimming for important information instead. He cites other bloggers and digerati who have noticed and commented on the same phenomenon.

This inability to read books, or longer more meaningful texts, also came up in a futuristic book I read recently: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. Set in the not-so-distant future, it’s a funny-yet-sad commentary on the direction our culture is heading. One scene in particular made me cringe – the protagonist reads aloud to his girlfriend from one of his collection of books (she initially, like everyone else, doesn’t recognize it as being a book and thinks its pages smell bad), but she is unable to follow the narrative because her only exposure to text has been web pages and texting friends. “I never really learned to read,” she says, “in school, they only taught us to skim and scan for important information.”

I wonder – is that really where we’re headed? I thought it was just the exaggeration of a novelist until I read Nicholas Carr’s book, but now I wonder whether people of the future will actually read long sections of connected text? Even a full webpage seems like too much text to a populace used to short blog entries, quick status updates, and even shorter Tweets. Our communication is getting shorter and quicker, not longer and more thoughtful. The irony is that with all the information available to us, you think we’d have more intelligent, thoughtful things to say about all that we’re learning. Instead, we barely pause between scanning websites or posting our locations on our smart phones to digest the information swirling around us.

There is a definite skill in reading connected, more difficult text. I find myself stopping to think, stare at the ceiling, filter the information as I receive it and decide how it fits with what I already know. My digestive pauses while reading are integral to my final comprehension of the text, and the longer and more difficult the text, the slower I read. That, unfortunately, doesn’t fit with the speed of today’s world. Will today’s budding readers learn how to read longer texts and digest them fully? Or will they end up like the girlfriend in “Love Story”, back to texting on her smart phone while her boyfriend finishes the book alone? Will those of us who enjoy books be freaks? If you’ve stuck with me this far, perhaps there’s hope for you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This made me think of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's novel (and 2011 Pulitzer prize winner), which includes one chapter loaded with texting language (LOL) and another that consists entirely of PowerPoint slides. These were the only means that two particular characters had to express themselves.