The Globe and Mail: I Have Forgotten How to Read

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.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!” he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

Oh. My. Word.

This is completely me. I knew that becoming accustomed to clicks and swipes of digested news had damaged my reading… Desire? Ability? I thought perhaps I’d just become lazy and was too busy to dedicate myself to a book.

For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But 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.

My goodness, it isn’t just me. Reading an article I ask myself, “what’s the main point I can highlight when I share this?” I don’t read for what I can understand, I read for what others can understand.

Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century. And it’s hardly been crystallized since then. Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated. The writer Clay Shirky even suggests that we’ve lately been “emptily praising” Tolstoy and Proust. Those old, solitary experiences with literature were “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.” In our online world, we can move on. And our brains – only temporarily hijacked by books – will now be hijacked by whatever comes next.

Well that’s certainly upsetting; centuries of the written word being cast aside for cat memes and copypasta.

There’s no doubt that our collective reading habits have changed – the once ubiquitous spinner rack of cheap paperbacks has become a rarity.  Our evenings are no longer spent with a book or newspaper.  Instead they’re spent with Facebook and a TV remote.  Is that a bad thing by its nature?  Given the state of our media and what’s considered entertainment, I’d say so.  But if entertainment was to change from hollow programming based on keeping our attention through commercials?  Probably not.  The first few millennia of civilization was spent communicating morality through plays and lectures.  TV isn’t much different than that when you think about it.

[I]f I can first correct my reading diet, remember how to read the way I once did. Not scan, not share, not excerpt – but read. Patiently, slowly, uselessly.

Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind.

Perhaps this is why, as darn handy as they are, e-readers fail us.  Those who enjoy reading for the sake of reading often eschew them for the traditional print-on-paper book.  I have a Kindle, and the ability to carry a digital library with me wherever I go is awesome in theory, but there’s just… something.  The Kindle doesn’t have that smell that a new book has.  It doesn’t carry the scars of being toted around in backpacks, shoved in back pockets, and having the page corners folded over to mark progress.  What it does have is the inherent distraction of being an Internet-connected device.  Boring spot in the book?  Eh, let’s play Candy Crush.

I suspect that one day, sitting down to read a novel will seem as antiquated as playing a piano in your home.  What was once a commonplace method of passing the time is instead an antiquated hobby that most people just don’t get.  Something niche that’s seen as having value if you can do it, but passed over by most people.  An activity that takes practice, time, and effort.  Which makes it all the more notable and worthwhile when you think about it.

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