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The End of Reading?

Summer 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 3


This editor's note appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


A few years ago, a student came to my office to discuss a paper upon which he had been given—given in the strictest sense of the term—a D. The class was an introduction to Shakespeare, and his assignment was to compare and contrast Bassanio from Merchant of Venice with Benedick from Much Ado about Nothing or, as an alternative topic, Beatrice with Portia from the same two plays. This three-to-four-page assignment revealed that the young man had an extremely precarious grip on the concept of comparing and contrasting, was possessed of a very limited vocabulary with little command of the possible meanings of the words he tried to use, and revealed great difficulty composing sentences of which the end evinced any logical relationship to the beginning. Even more alarming, however, was that he had hardly grasped at all even the literal plots of the plays, much less their nuances of character and meaning.

As it turned out, he was, to my dismay, an English major. “I’m in creative writing,” he said, indicating the most popular curricular “concentration” in my former department. “I don’t like reading that much,” he continued by way of explanation; “I just like writing.” Rarely am I at a loss for words, but this was one of those occasions when I was quite dumbfounded. After a long pause, I weakly suggested that someone who expected others to read his work might properly spend some time reading the work of others, if only as a matter of courtesy.

This incident recently came back to me when I read a news article by Michael S. Rosenwald under the headline “Web reading rewires brain for skimming” (Tampa Bay Times, April 13, 2014). The item begins with an account of the reading habits of Claire Handscombe, who is identified as a “35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.” When she “surfs” the Web, clicking on the links to various “social media” (“antisocial” is probably a more accurate designation), she rarely pauses to read more than a few sentences, as she “looks for exciting words and then grows restless.” It gets worse:

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way
with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

Thus the reading habits of a graduate student in creative writing.

Much of the rest of the article relies on the work of Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, who maintains that prolonged online reading, which usually means hopping from link to link and skimming only the most striking bits (or bytes?) of information from the various sites, actually alters the functioning of the brain. “This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep-reading circuitry developed over several millennia.” As an example, Professor Wolf offers herself: after weeks of intense scrolling through websites and hundreds of e-mails, she found that she could not sit down and read a novel, and it took her two weeks of intense effort to recover the skill. “The brain was not designed for reading.” It was a skill that developed over a great deal of time and that evidently may be lost very quickly. Or, in the case of the “millennial generation,” never really acquired at all.

This should not be surprising. Neil Postman was warning us nearly thirty years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that electronic media treat their subjects superficially and diminish our power of concentration and in-depth understanding, and his major worry was television. In fact, Postman was already aware of the dangers inherent in the first electronic medium to make use of a digital code:

The value of telegraphy is undermined by applying the tests of permanence, continuity or coherence. The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation. (70)

Now imagine that, back in the nineteenth century, practically everyone in America spent hours every day sending and receiving telegrams, and that classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school were filled with telegraph devices, often supplied by the largess of Samuel Morse himself, so that every child would be “Morse Code literate.” Even Neil Postman could not see the analogue of this looming ahead of him.

None of the essays in this issue of Modern Age has a direct bearing on the “rewiring of readers’ brains” treated in the news item by Michael Rosenwald, but the reading problem certainly bears a sinister relevance for practically every topic raised in these pages and in all the issues to come. The inability of many Americans to read in anything but the most superficial sense—their inability to follow an argument and grasp its significance, to distinguish among the subtle nuances of words and phrases, to see a particular piece of writing in the context of a wider literary culture—is cause for alarm to every citizen, but especially to conservatives.

The problem is subtle but undeniable. Reed Davis offers as an alternative to the Darwinian political science of evolutionary biology a more humanely oriented version of the political and moral nature of mankind, based on the traditional ideas of Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, especially, Raymond Aron. This traditional conception of politics rests on the premise that human beings are more than the sum of their material parts and physiological activity—a vision that includes the notion that reading is more than merely processing information. It is rather the imaginative grasping and internalizing of a complex of ideas and images. While it is highly improbable that any amount of exposure to the “great stereopticon” staged by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk can actually reinvent human nature by “rewiring” our brains, there is no doubt that a great deal of damage can be done to that nature by trivializing and abusing it.

Western civilization has advanced and flourished over the past two millennia as a significant percentage of the populace has become not merely literate but has developed cultural and moral awareness developed by reading and understanding in depth. Reed Davis’s essay takes on a poignant urgency when we realize that a people steeped in the ephemeral and sensational are far more likely to resign themselves to the status of merely biological beings with no possibility of spiritual transcendence. They will certainly be unable even to see the relevance of James F. Pontuso’s exposition of the subtle relationship between Solzhenitsyn’s imaginative vision and the divine longing in mankind that transforms particular social, economic, or political situations. Likewise, the importance of Edmund Burke’s religion will be simply opaque to superficial readers unable to penetrate to the spiritual and intellectual foundations of the stand he took on specific issues. Gilbert Sheldon’s argument that Burke was a kind of crypto-Catholic is bound to be controversial, but it is important not to lose sight of the deeper point: whatever one’s judgment on this particular argument, it is critical to acknowledge that the thinking of the father of conservatism rested on a profound spiritual awareness.

It is our lead essay, Bryce Christensen’s discussion of the lamentable state of contemporary higher education, that has the most immediate pertinence to the problem of reading. Professor Christensen primarily takes note of the politicization of the university—of its expropriation in the interest of individual administrators and professors, each pursuing his personal or ideological agenda; but it is worth noting that the fragmentation of the curriculum discussed in the essay has a powerful negative impact on reading. A student who takes a course in Aristotle’s Ethics will have to begin as an accomplished reader, and the content of the course will encourage, nay, force him to enhance his reading and comprehension skills. A bad reader will find a course in “Business Ethics,” which can be handled as a series of “bullets” in a PowerPoint presentation, far more accommodating.

At the risk of appearing cynical, one might suspect that the dissolution of reading and writing skills and stupefaction of the curriculum in the contemporary university does not trouble much of the faculty because it is favorable to their progressive politics. The conservative political vision cannot be reduced to a slogan, a tweet, or a bumper sticker. It takes time, patience, and a detailed exposition to explain, for example, why merely raising the budget of an education department will not necessarily improve the learning of students. It also requires an electorate capable of following an argument—a capacity derived from intense reading. It is very easy, on the other hand, to shout that anyone who doesn’t vote for the budget increase does not care about children.

Electronic media are unlikely to disappear anytime soon (and they certainly make it easier to deliver this piece to the printer!). Conservatives are going to have to find a way to take advantage of such media where possible and to mitigate their addictive, destructive tendencies where it is not. Above all we must labor to recapture, perhaps one teacher at a time, a nearly monolithic, progressive education establishment. There is no single approach to this massive problem, and none that are easy. —RVY