The Life and Death of Deep Reading

I used to be able to sit for hours, reading, lost in other worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Emily Dickinson’s poems, or Stan Lee’s New York City. Reading used to be my default activity, my stave against boredom, and my refuge. I trained as a reader, learning how to read, deeply, through interpretive theories and mechanisms such as Marxism, post-structuralism, close reading, reader response theory, and more.

The tactile thrill of fingers touching words in black ink on pages never went away fully, but at some point in the past 10 years a little black attention-hijacking device called an iPhone came in to my life, with its perfectly designed (in Cupertino, don’cha know) and engineered features doing what it does best, whch is gradually stealing my attention until it fully owns it. The attention thief apparently even steals your attention when it is upside down on a table in front of you (which is what people do in meetings now, to show they are paying attention-watch their hands twitch and get pulled toward it, as if by magic or magnetism).

Mindless scrolling in grocery lines. Picking it up when there is nothing else to do. Pointless Twitter argumentation (the same arguments, over and over, ad nauseum, and ad absurdum). I never reached the point of having a phone by my bed. That always seemed too far- too much.

For me the tipping point, the point of noticing that something was wrong, was noticing this, and this only:

in bookstores, I was picking books up and power scanning their backs, as if the back cover copy was…a tweet. I was giving about 2 seconds to this, before moving on.

This was completely ridiculous, and probably an indication of a brain in need of retraining. A book is not a tweet. They are not designed to do the same thing. Both are texts to be read, and a tweet can contain sublime wisdom, but tweets are designed for brevity, and books are designed to be sat with and thought about and savoured. The back cover description is a gateway to the world inside-itself a concise and perfect summary of what lies within. And I can’t even take the time to read that?

Somewhat ironically, I ended up reading the ebook version of this. Ebooks are amazing for being able to toggle back and forth to the numbered endnotes.

Maryanne Wolf’s “Reader, Come Home”, is a cri de coeur from another faithful reader who noticed her brain being changed, and setting out to find out why, and how. Here tipping point was trying to reread Hesse, an old friend to her, and finding him unfamiliar.

For Wolf, it was, somewhat ironically, seven years of researching the book itself that hijacked her reading brain. In reading about changes to the reading brain, in the digital brain, she herself was changed, by the constant demands of email, and research article summaries, and the constant flow of information she needed to “keep up” with.

Her astonishing claim in the book is that humans now consume 34 GB of text every single day. We read an astonishing amount, a novel a day, but much of it skimming. This paradox, reading more, but seemingly reading much worse, is what she set out to explore.

There is evidence for both sides, and more work to be done on how the digital reading brain works. For me, enough is enough. I am reading an 1100 page fantasy novel, which is book two of a trilogy, after reading book one, which was 800 pages.

This is Patrick Rothfuss’ magnificent Kingkiller series. It is a story about stories, narrated by the seemingly reliable narrator, Kvothe. It has a coherent system of magic, interesting characters, and sort of upends some of the tropes of fantasy fiction. It is a world. It is its own world.

The goal is to bring my attention, truly and fully, back. These books require careful and patient attention. This one has a 30 page section where the “hero” cavorts with a fairy, for crying out loud (a weird and psychedelic section, but the world needs more “weird and psychedelic”).

There is hope for the next generation, though. My children have experienced learning to read on paper, and there is a wealth of interesting works out there for children. My 8 year old slams Wimpy Kid books (literally in about 15 minutes). My 6 year old has found the “Bad Guys” series. They have found their “gateway drugs”. Mine was Marvel and Hardy Boys.

Reading is a human invention, one of our greatest. Like all invented things, it is something we must learn to live with and use. There is no “natural” when it comes to text-there is a system of letters, units of thought like sentences and paragraphs, genres and styles to be navigated. Reading is hard. Reading requires careful and patient work.

Read widely, to know the world. Read widely, to understand the world. “Reader, come home”, Wolf implores. I am trying.

Matthew Oldridge on Twitter with your book recommendations.

Writing about creativity, books, productivity, education, particularly mathematics, music, and whatever else “catches my mind”. ~Thinking about things~

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