If You Can Read This…

Its been a while since I’ve thought about this, at least in any sort of coherently recordable form, but yesterday I caught this article. Its worth your time to read, and is essentially arguing that technology, specifically the Internet, is actually increasing the number of people who read, at least according to a University of San Diego study. Their logic, it seems, is that words remain the dominant medium by which information is communicated through websites. Thus, the Internet is not only not doing any harm, but is, in fact, doing good toward increasing literacy.

The issue with studies like this one is that they draw broad conclusions from a very focused social observation. The argument certainly can be made that we engage in the written word more frequently than we have in the past if we spend any time at all online (which you obviously do if you’re reading this), even if its only scanning Facebook stories and Twitter updates from our friends. Many of us take the time to digest CNN or NPR or New York Times articles by way of their websites, which are still more text-based than video-based. So, by strictest definition of the term, yes…society is reading more.

My question is, though…how are we reading?

Back in the summer of 2008, The Atlantic ran a story by Nicholas Carr that gained quite a bit of traction: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The thrust of Carr’s argument is that the Internet is changing the way in which our brain functions during the process of reading, that we become more accustomed to reading small chunks of information broken up by tangential hyperlinks and being packaged in easily digestible formats and lengths. Thus, sitting down with, say, Tolstoy, Tolkien, Salinger or Updike, becomes more of a chore than it once was, because the length and intensity of attention required to really engage a work of literature is much more than we are used to.

I’ve experienced this as well. The bulk of the information I consume during the average day comes by way of the Internet. I read news stories in the same “inverted pyramid style” in which they are written; that is, something really has to fascinate me to get me to turn to the second full page.  More frequently than that, I  scan headlines and two-line synopses of stories in my RSS reader instead. When the blogs I follow have lengthy posts, I intentionally have to put them off until later, to make certain I give them the attention that they deserve. Even then, however, engaging a blog post for 5 minutes is significantly different than engaging a novel for two hours. I find myself agreeing with Carr at some level: it is more difficult for me to “curl up with a good book” for more than an hour or two.

The study that Wired mentions is settling for quantity over quality. Taking in more words during the course of the average day isn’t the same as actually spending time with those words, loving the language, acquainting oneself with the author and characters. As reading is taught in our public education system as a means to an end, a technical process to facilitate the hard sciences instead of an appreciation of eloquent language, so has our definition of “reading” become: utilitarian instead of something having value in itself.

Obviously, I’m not against technology. I found the Wired article by way of someone I follow on Twitter, ironically enough. I just feel that its important to not confuse the tools we use for daily communication with the validity of the language(s) we use them to facilitate. In a recent Facebook conversation, a friend referred to Twitter as a “literature sniper.”  Other friends have referred to it as the height of narcissism.  That might be a bit harsh, but it could also be true if the only reason we use our language is for basic communication, at the expense of enjoying and loving and exploring our humanity, of which our language is a part.

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