Are we falling out of love with books?
I realized a little while ago – when yet another book arrived from Amazon and was thrown on the to-read pile – that I’m no longer the bibliophile I once was. I love the idea of reading books, but I’m not making time to do it. Recent fiction isn’t appealing – I don’t seem to have the patience or interest. (I feel like Jessica Crispin in that respect). And nonfiction, which I have been reading occasionally, seems too much like a part of my job.
I’m really disturbed by this trend. I self-identify as a devoted reader. I expect everyone else to think of me as a Reader with a capital R. And I’m pretty darn picky about the people I hang out with being Readers too – Readers of “Serious Books”! This attitude is, as this NYT essay points out, pretentious and silly – yet common:
Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.) After all, women read more, especially when it comes to fiction. “It’s really great if you find a guy that reads, period,” said Beverly West, an author of “Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives.”
Bibliotherapy? Does that work? (And yes, for the record, my staffer reads.)
But seriously – what am I losing by neglecting to read? Is my brain atrophying even as I type this blog entry? Maryanne Wolf has just released a book, Proust and the Squid, about the neuroscience of reading, and how reading, an activity evolution couldn’t have anticipated, challenges and shapes our minds. After I belatedly realized it was a different title than Jonah Lehrer’s Proust/neuroscience book, I considered buying it – only to decide that reading a book about the biology of reading to assuage my guilt about not reading was way too meta.
So, in the Web 2.0 spirit, I absorbed the gist of the book I have not yet read by dipping into a number of reviews, such as this one from the Telegraph:
One important thing to bear in mind is that our brains did not evolve to read. They evolved to hunt and gather, make campfires and so on. This means that reading is an act of improvisation – when you read, you’re actually using parts of the brain that were designed to do other things. You’re splicing together several different technologies. To our brains, reading is just as peculiar/unnatural as Blackberrying or IMing or blogging from this coffee shop. As a species, we haven’t been doing it nearly long enough. And a lot of people don’t do it at all.
It’s true: increasing numbers of people really don’t do it at all. According to a 2007 NEA report (pdf),
Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.
The NEA report points out that:
-Only 47% of adults read a work of literature (defined as a novel, short story, play or poem) within the past year;
-65% of college freshmen read for pleasure less than an hour a week or not at all;
-Even among college graduates/post-graduates, reading proficiency has declined at a 20%-23% rate between 1992 and 2003;
-the college seniors of 2005 had a greater likelihood of reading less on any given week than when they were high school seniors.
Are unchecked internet habits responsible for the surprising decline in reading among college-educated adults? Maybe, maybe not; we don’t have the data to judge. After all, the internet is still younger than the Baby Boomers (this recent Vanity Fair retrospective shows just how quickly our world has changed). But Wolf and others suggest that the way we read on the internet is a different beast entirely from reading traditional literature – that the “Google universe” fosters a brisk, shallow reading style and a state of constantly divided attention which are at odds with deep thought. The NEA report notes that 58% of middle or high school students use other media (TV, music, IM, etc) some or most of the time while reading. I admit that I, too, multitask compulsively. Lately, my blog output has dwindled painfully, and I think it’s because keeping up with text messages and email and news clips has compromised my inclination (and ability?) to read and write the longer blog posts I enjoy. My attention span has deteriorated well past “book” or “novella,” and now hovers around “New Yorker article” or “long blog post.” Could it dwindle even further, to “Google snippet”? Am I getting older and lazier, or is the way I’m thinking changing to parallel new information technologies? (And how about you? Did this unusually long paragraph seem difficult to slog through? Are you, in fact, still reading?)
These fears are by no means new. But we may have reached some cultural tipping point, because I’m hearing other people voice the same concerns. The cover of the July/August Atlantic Monthly asks, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” I’d answer heck yes – thanks to Google, I’ve grown reluctant to rack my brain over something as trivial as information retrieval. Occasionally I deny myself the immediate gratification of Googling, forcing myself to actually remember that obscure 80s band, or that line of poetry by Yeats. I always feel exceptionally virtuous afterward, as if I’ve eaten my vitamins or done 30 minutes on the elliptical machine.
Google has altered my organizational strategies as well. I rarely bother bookmarking sites or filing documents for reference; I know I can Google up what I want faster than I could locate it on my desktop. No more digging through a pile of dusty, tactile books to research the factoid I need: I just do a Google library search. Earlier this year, I went (in person!) to American University’s library to read an actual book, but I failed miserably. I couldn’t locate what I wanted in the library’s electronic catalog, because I’d neglected to write down the complete citation – I’d blithely assumed I’d just Google it when I got to the library. But the library didn’t give Web access to nonstudents, so I was effectively helpless. (Now that I have my iPhone, I could have Googled it anyway, anywhere).
Granted – Google has changed our ways of learning and reading and researching. But is that so bad? After all, the internet gives us access to unprecedented quantities of data, so even if we merely skip across the informational reservoir like a rock across a pond, aren’t we still learning more than ever? In the Atlantic Monthly cover article, Nicholas Carr phrases the fundamental concern beautifully:
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 words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. (source)
About six weeks ago, determined to become a reader again, I went to the bookstore. I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon’s V. and Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty. And although I find myself reading in more abbreviated chunks (snippets?) than I used to, I am almost painfully relieved to discover I still love books.
Carr closes his Atlantic essay with this quote from Richard Foreman.
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality–a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self–evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.” (source)
Foreman captures my original fear: that I am not only ceasing to read, I’m no longer the person I thought I was, or the person aspired to be. My liberal arts education instilled in me the very ideal he describes. But is it still possible, or desirable, to be such a Renaissance man or woman in the information age?