I missed my weekly late Friday afternoon ritual of scanning through Arts and Letters Daily and printing off 6-8 of its featured articles for weekend reading while I was on vacation, so I didn’t get to read Patrick Kingsley’s piece from mid-July until a few days ago. I wanted to take a moment to steer slightly off topic and offer my own response, because Kingsley touches on a couple of themes I find myself often thinking about:
• The Internet’s impact on reading
• The benefits of deep and narrow reading versus those of broad and shallow reading–or slow reading vs. skimming
If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.
I can add my own experience as both consumer and producer to this evidence. This is the second website I’ve created: the first, which has nothing at all to do with books, went online in late 1996. And the data from both shows exactly the same trends. Setting aside robots, spiders, links to images incorporated in other sites’ pages and everything thing else that represents automated traffic rather than real people making real mouse clicks, 95 per cent or more of visitor spend a minute or less on the site. Of the rest, most click around a page or three, and a tiny but persistent number spend ten to thirty minutes perusing its contents in depth.
It makes perfect sense. Both sites deal with an esoteric subject and are intended to as an alternative resource, filling a few gaps in material otherwise substantially covered elsewhere. It doesn’t take much looking to find plenty of material aboutThe Red Badge of Courage, just to take an example–nearly as much as there is about the works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. But for the foreseeable future, I’ve got the corner on stuff about the works Herbert Clyde Lewis or Isabel Paterson (aside from her libertarian tracts).
Which is something about one in a million people have the slightest interest in–and the emphasis is on slightest. But I’m a firm believer that a little thing done well serves, if nothing else, as grit in the machinery of our inevitable descent into entropy. And so I’m not surprised that a tiny, tiny, tiny speck of the trillions of link clicks in the Internet land on my sites, or that most flit off to another page in a heartbeat or two. It’s the one person every week or so who spends twenty minutes truly reading and discovering the sites who tells me this more than the world’s 12th largest ball of lint.
Nor am I surprised that these studies find reading of material on the Internet is more a matter of hopping quickly from lilypad to lilypad than of focused, patient concentration. Now that most of us have speedy connections, the marginal cost of clicking along to the next link is just a moment’s delay. And if the material proves unworthy of the click, just click on. It’s the world’s biggest and best salad bar and you don’t even have to waste the time to chew and swallow what you sample. Just spit it out and click on. There’s a new page, with new colors and different pictures and adifferent arrangement of material on screen. It appeals so directly to the wiring of our minds, bound as they are to sight as our primary sense, that the wonder is not that so much traffic merely skitters across the tops of pages, but that anyone manages the self-control to stop and resist the urge to click on.
So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.
I refuse to see this trend as a matter of “getting stupider.” Any father who’s been thoroughly humiliated on a video game by his ten year old son understands that it’s not a matter of smarter or dumber but of a shift from one type of intelligence to another. One could as easily argue that those of us who grew up in a low-speed analog world are the ones getting stupider. Twitter still baffles me, for example. Oh, I fully understand how it works. I just fail to understand why on God’s Earth anyone would use it.
Which means, of course, that I am out of the loop–out of the intelligence loop–when it comes to Twitter’s content, to its function as an element of a nervous system, if you will. I haven’t even got a ticket for that Cluetrain.
While I side with Darwin and believe that adaptation to its environment is a species’ greatest survival skill, I also believe that we have a tendency, at least in the U. S., to think that momentum carries us further than is the case. As Timothy Wilson shows in Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to self-knowledge, we don’t know what we don’t know–but we’re finding out that it’s a whole bunch. So while some of us are Twittering into the future, we are still only a few steps from the cave in much of our unconsciously-driven behavior.
And our environment is not changing that quickly, either. Our culture still has strong roots going back thousands of years. Our institutions go back decades and centuries. And our knowledge is still deeply bound to materials, practices, and skills that cannot be mastered in a few clicks. I wouldn’t be too happy to learn that my surgeon earned his license by surfing through “Cardiology for Dummies.” There is a vast amount of information relevant to our world that offers almost nothing of value to a skimmer. I well remember highlighting sentences in my calculus of variations text in college that were grammatically correct and mathematically valid and utterly incomprehensible to a non-mathematician. I’m not sure I could even understand them now, thirty years later. There is no way to unlock material such as this aside from time and close attention.
What Malcolm Gladwell calls “the 10,000 hour rule” is just the latest rediscovery of something my mother, who grew up caring for ten brothers on a Kansas farm in the Depression used to say: “There’s no substitute for hard work.” Sticking to material that can be read quickly and lightly leaves merely proves the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing. I heard a defense company executive recount recently that a senior NATO official had complained that a two-page paper the executive had written was “too long.” Relying exclusively on skimming as one’s way of acquiring knowledge is the intellectual equivalent of eating baby food–which is, essentially, pre-chewed food.
Real men chew their own food and real readers roll up their sleeves and dig in. As John Waters put in his recent book, Role Models, “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading.” Or, as Charles Ives one retorted to an audience member who booed a difficult piece of modernist music by Carl Ruggles, “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”
I actually think we’re remarkably fortunate to be living in a time when both types of knowledge are accessible and relevant. In 1985, if I wanted to do something as simple as book an airline flight to another city, arrange for a rental car, and book a hotel room, I had two choices: ferret out copies of the OAG, a hotel register, Yellow Pages for the town, or some other rare and expensive information source–or turn the problem over to a travel agent. Travel agents had access to these vital resources and the specialist knowledge of how to use them. I probably traveled twenty times on business in 1985: I know just how time consuming and unpredictable this process was. Now, I can complete the same transaction myself in a few minutes and a couple dozen clicks. We are living in a time when both skimming and mining have their uses.
[Henry] Hitchings does agree that the internet is part of the problem. “It accustoms us to new ways of reading and looking and consuming,” Hitchings says, “and it fragments our attention span in a way that’s not ideal if you want to read, for instance, Clarissa.”
I mention this quote just to tell a little anecdote from my undergraduate days. One of the first English literature courses I took was some oddly-titled invention of the professor who taught it, in which the class–all ten of us, I think–worked through just two books in the course of a quarter: Bleak House and Ulysses. We spent over two weeks just parsing our way through one chapter–‘Nausicaa,’ I think. I came away in awe of Joyce’s ability to weave meaning and symbolism into every word of every sentence–and of the professor’s skill in revealing how many layers there were to Joyce’s text. It was one the most intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve ever enjoyed.
About a year later, I mentioned how much I enjoyed the course to Prof. Thomas Lockwood, whose survey course on the 18th century English novel I was taking. “Perhaps we should take a similar approach,” he joked. “I can see it now: ‘Attention, everyone! Let’s turn now to Volume 7, Letter XLIV. “My Dear Mrs. Norton: Had I not fallen into fresh troubles, which disabled me for several days from holding a pen ….” Only two volumes and 248 letters left to go, folks!'”
Yes, I confess I skimmed Clarissa. It was about a guy trying to get into a girl’s pants, as I recall.