Friday, June 20, 2008

Brave New World

from Jacqueline

I know I’ve touched upon this subject before, but I just have to go for it again. It’s the question of whether we are losing the will and ability to read. No, I’m not questioning whether you can recite your ABC’s or if you can actually read the words I’m writing here, but are we losing the intellectual stamina to read anything longer than an email and a text message?

I first started thinking about this a few years ago, after a conversation over lunch with my publisher, during which we discussed the future of books. It transpired that illustrated books for adults were considered to be a “next big thing.” As the population ages, it will need those pictures to get them through a book. I thought back to some writing I’d done a few years ago, for a magazine aimed at the over-50 market, and I was told to keep my articles to about 500-600 words, because as people aged they didn’t want to read more than that at any one time. At that point, the big 5-0 was looming out there for me, so I just thought, “Oh, no, that won’t happen to me ....”

Then yesterday, at Scottsdale airport (I'd been at our beloved Poisoned Pen bookstore), I picked up the latest Atlantic Monthly to read on the ‘plane, and the lead article had me thinking about the question of literary endurance all over again. The title: Is Google Making Us Stoopid. It’s a fair question, and the essay’s author, Nicholas Carr, asks it very well, describing the way he’s been thinking about his own thinking. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.” He goes on to describe how his mind wanders, how he is distracted, and how deep reading has become a struggle. Hmmmm. I confess, I have had my moments. Re-reading Middlemarch doesn’t seem to be quite the idea it was a year ago.

The article goes on to describe a phenomenon we have come to know and understand - that our minds are being trained by the internet to dip into this, dip into that. To research a point, I no longer have to read a book, or even a well-chosen chapter, I just Google, and I’m there. Carr describes, “foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines, and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link.” And it turns out, at University College London they've been conducting research into computer logs at the British Library and a UK-based educational consortium, and they found that people using the site exhibited a “form of skimming activity.” And so it went on. The reader’s life is no longer as we knew it.

The thing that interests me in all this, is how much people – from those who write articles such as this one in The Atlantic Monthly, to those discussing the subject – use the words “information” and “wisdom” interchangeably. And they are not the same thing. To me, the amassing of information is akin to our current obsession with “stuff.” The amount of stuff we have these days, stuff that we deem absolutely necessary to our quality of life, is almost obscene. And if we were asked to take just a few things because the house was about to burn down (or foreclosed!), we’d soon find out how much useless stuff we’ve managed to wrap around ourselves and what we truly care for and need. Information is like that. Knowledge, however, is akin to spun silk. Information is simply a batch of facts. It's "clothes" not couture. Knowledge has to do with every cell of the body, and it is a pre-requisite for wisdom, thus is it all but unachievable - as the truly wise would gladly tell us if we did but listen. Knowledge is a path. Information a destination for a given purpose. Knowledge is perennial. Information flowers once.

I'm not a Luddite, but I would love to know where all this "progress" is going. I see more books being published than ever before, I see kids happily reading a 700-page Harry Potter book, and at the same time, I was told by a teacher a couple of years ago, that increasingly kids are having trouble with books because they don’t know how to imagine, because it’s being done for them with the electronic imagery they’ve been brought up with. Ah, Electrickery.

And before I leave you (having written over 700 words, I’ve pushed the envelope enough already), I wonder if you all saw the cover of last week’s New Yorker. I cut it out and pasted it on the refridgerator. It was, I think, one of the saddest covers ever. It depicted a bookstore owner unlocking the door to his shop, while at the same time his neighbor is receiving a box of books from Amazon.

Ah, brave, brave new world.

Have a lovely weekend. Do yourself a favor, read a good long book. Middlemarch, anyone? Crime and Punishment? 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke?


  1. Yes, we are bombarded at every turn with flashing images and clever sound bites, but I believe at some point people will begin to crave peace and quiet and a big thick book.

    I'm in Minnesota at the moment, signing at some lovely independent bookstores and buying books to take home.

  2. A very thought provoking post. I've noticed over the past few years that the amount of information that you can expect to be read when sending an email message has been continually reduced to what is now one short paragraph. In most cases a second paragraph will be completely ignored. If the recipient has a blackberry anything beyond the first sentence will be either ignored or not seen.

    I think your Harry Potter example applies to all age groups. There are so many different alternatives for reading now that it takes something well written and interesting to the reader to capture the focus required to really absorb something.

    I'm 52 and I find nearly all magazine articles to be either too short or too long. If the subject is interesting and the article well written it is never long enough. However, if I'm only marginally interested in the subject matter it is nearly always too long. Is that an age thing or a too many options thing?

    I'm glad I didn't see the magazine cover that you mentioned, I'd feel guilty about waiting for todays book order from Amazon to arrive....

  3. Yes, the "evolution" (q.v.) may be information, knowledge, wisdom.
    Indeed the problem comes from us equating information with knowledge. Not withstanding the litany of perplexity with epistemology, one certainly can grasp the old "garbage in, garbage out" phenomena. Wisdom, raises the bar even higher.

    I used to be ridiculed by a few people because my letters to them were "so lengthy"...... to them being akin to some sort of treatises or the like. I always thought the idea behind any writing was to communicate, hopefully clearly, distinctively and effectively. When one "editorializes" either in what he writes, as in the limited to one paragraph email, or reads, as in skimming, it seems to me that the objective of communicating in some way suffers. This is not to say that long windedness is defacto better; no, choosing your words carefully is critical, and brevity has its place---- if it successfully communicates the idea intended. On the other hand, a thumbnail sketch is sorely lacking in a quest for knowledge, and in ones attempt to find wisdom.

    Fortunately for all of us, Jackie, you are consistently a beacon for thought provocation. Like Goldylocks [not to be confused with Go-Lo], your "porridge," in terms of length and depth, always seems to be "just right." That is a blessing to not only all of us who enjoy this blog, but to yourself as well.


  4. Now we have "plurking." What next?

  5. "plurking"? do tell....I'm ignorant to that word.

  6. I've increasingly found it difficult to read as many books as I once did.

    And here I thought it was the alcohol.

  7. I have 2 kids in elementary school and I wanted to chime in that the methods for teaching young children have changed in the last 20 years.

    We have several veteran teachers who still teach "old style"--they expect the kids to listen to a lecture and get the information out of a book.

    Younger teachers now put homwork assignments on the web, allow kids to use electronic spellcheckers (if they have trouble spelling) and lessons are taught in a more hands-on experiential way. There's a big emphasis on learn by doing.

    My fifth grader was given the option of doing a formal written book report or building a diorama to illustrate what he learned from a book. He loves anything that involves building so he always opts to dress up a shoe box.

    I don't know what this means for the future of reading but it is interesting to see how education has adapted to the "entertain me" generation.

  8. Very thought provoking. I'm actually quite optomistic about the future of reading but it's a mixed bag.

    I am a mom with 2 kids in elementary school--a first grade girl who loves to read and a fifth grade boy who hates to read.

    At the local elementary school where my kids attend, I have observed that there are a few veteran teachers who teach "old style". They expect the kids to listen to a lecture and get the information out of a book.

    Most of the younger teachers now put homework assignments on the web, allow kids to use electronic spellcheckers (if they have trouble spelling) and lessons are taught in a more hands-on experiential way. There's a big emphasis on learning by doing.

    My fifth grader would rather be looking at Youtube but is required to do daily reading and keep a journal of what he's read. He is also occasionally given the option of doing a formal written book report or building a diorama to illustrate what he learned from a book. He loves anything that involves building so he always opts to dress up a shoe box.

    My first grader loves chapter books about fairies.

    I'm also noticing that public schools (the good ones) are better at diagnosing and addressing learning disabilities which ultimately bodes well for having a nation of readers.

    Educators are doing their best to adapt to the "entertain me" generation but it's anybody's guess whether once these kids get out of school, they'll continue reading or be perfectly happy to watch videos on YouTube.

  9. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, all, for your thoughtful (and amusing) comments. Yes, the times are a-changing, and I think Sharon makes a good point in bringing up the issue of entertainment. We already have "edutainment" in teaching methods, which to this old fogie here points to a dismissal of discipline in education. And by 'discipline" I don't mean teaching laced with reprimands. I mean the personal discipline it takes to learn to spell, for example. There is more in that process than just being able to get the letters in the right place. It isa process that requires the child to learn how to channel intellectual stamina, and also to learn rigor, that you can't just do something to get by, and then play. (Though that seems to be at the heart of so much mediocrity in a variety of human endeavors, I think).

    Some years ago, my then 17-year-old God-daughter came to spend the summer with me. We were chatting away - probably about books - and I said something about a "noun." The conversation subsequently revealed that she had no idea what "noun" meant, or adjective, verb and adverb, come to that. She had missed out on that lesson completely because the education system did not believe it relevant to the teaching of English. I couldn't help it, I said, "What the bloody hell did they teach you then?" And, "What did your mother say about that?" Her mother is my oldest, dearest friend, and she's a teacher of special needs children. Needless to say, my God-daughter went home knowing her nouns from her adverbs. She's now 25 and also a teacher.

    What is "plurking?"

    David, nothing like a good book and a glass of wine. Sipping is a good idea.

  10. I read WAR AND PEACE p'rhaps two years ago. Earlier this year, I reread THE ODYSSEY and THE ILIAD. I hope to read A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Dante's INFERNO (especially after visiting Firenze, Italy - a.k.a. Florence - earlier this year; and I want to read the other two books in Dante's 'series', as well), Dumas' THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and more(!) later this year.

    In fact, I want so much to read MORE (and I'm already a voracious reader) that I recently signed up for a speed reading class that I'll be taking next month.

    I think it's true, though, that people are developing shorter attention spans. I've noticed that online news sources, such as THE WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK TIMES, et al, all have online articles whose paragraphs tend to be either one or two sentences long, and very few cover anything in any depth at all.

    Gary (no longer a lurking reader)

  11. at the ripe old age of 55 i take pride to be a little old fashioned. i do prefer any book to all these modern electronic devices. of course i google and chat and e-mail and whatever, but at the end of the day, there's nothing like a good book.

    it wasn't always like that. for many years i couldn't find time for anything else but mothering. when our kids were growing up, the lawson household was more like a circus than a home, with friends and friends of friends hanging round all the time. of course i read all the german fairytales to my girls, but that was about it.

    so, jackie, finding you again last november was like an early christmas present. since then i've read all your books, a couple of pattys' and some others that have been gathering dust on the shelf, while waiting for some more to be delivered to my local bookshop.

    of course there is nothing wrong with progress, but i leave that "brave new world" to the next generation. i rather stick to my books again. unfortunately without that glas of wine! a couple of sips and i'm all yours............


  12. Gary, you inspire me! I have Middlemarch waiting for a re-read when I've finished the revision of the novel currently in progress, and I want to go back to Crime and Punishment as well. And there is something about the relentless barrage of information that makes you want to just hunker down with a good book - for a long time. My Dad always says that you should put your tools away when you're done with them, otherwise accidents happen - we all tinker around with our electronic tools all the time, and look what's happening to us.

    Sybille, you were always a big reader, but those days of raising children and welcoming friends to the house are important too. The great thing about reading is that you can always come back to it, and for the time being at least, there are still so many great books to read and re-read. And it's been great being in touch with you again too!

  13. For several years now, I've made it a habit to set myself goal to read a given number of books in a year. I usually accomplish my goal. When I don't, I always come close to it. I never predetermine what I'll read. I allow myself to read anything that captures my fancy: how-to books on writing, novels, anthologies, plays, non-fiction of any sort. The past two years, however, have been different. This year, for example, I decided that ten of the books I would read would be classics of my own choosing. The year's not quite half over and I've already read five, so I'm ahead of schedule.

    The obligations that come with adulthood have managed to squeeze out some of the reading time I enjoyed when I was high school age and younger. Consequently, when I recently learned that George Washington University will be holding speed reading classes in my neighbourhood, I jumped on the opportunity to register for them (especially since they've a policy that once you've taken a paid class, you can attend subsequent classes for free — this is apparently something they do here every year). I'm hoping that it'll help me to 'regain' some of those reading 'hours' lost to adulthood.

    I've found that, as an adult, I've a greater appreciation for the classics, especially with all that I've learned about writing in the intervening years. I now have the knowledge necessary to understand why they are labeled as 'classics'.

  14. Gary, your reading goal has inspired me, thank you. And that speed-reading course sounds like a plan. I've thought of taking such a course myself, but always come back to the fact that I like to go through the book at whatever pace seems appropriate to the novel (or memoir, autobiography, or whatever).

    But I like your idea of that goal. I usually just have a pile of books I want to read and that I wade my way through, however, I may try adding ten classics to the list. Thank you!

  15. Jacqueline, I'm glad my ideas have inspired you. :D

    I've thought the same about the speed-reading of novels, too, but I've read that even those who subscribe to speed-reading don't recommend reading novels or anything of that ilk at the higher speeds (which I've noted later on in this comment). My own personal goal is simple: if I can double my reading speed, I'll be happy. That will keep me well within the range at which novels can still be fully appreciated.

    With the research I've done, I've learned that there are two categories of reading speeds. The first is the speed at which we all read, as well as a bit higher. This speed involves what is called 'sub-vocalization,' and it's so-called because at the lower speeds we all have a tendency to vocalize what we're reading, even if we're not moving our lips.

    Most people average about 250 wpm, unless they're reading especially difficult material (but difficult material slows everyone down). My current reading speed is in the range of 280-300 wpm (sometimes a little faster, especially if I'm particularly enjoying what I'm reading). The idea of doubling my speed and being able to read more seems like pure bliss to me. (I fully subscribe to Thomas Jefferson's sentiment: "I cannot live without books.") I've read that even 500-600 wpm is still slow enough that sub-vocalization is still going on. The general claim is that sub-vocalization starts to disappear at speeds beyond 900 wpm. I'm not interested in that. I want to be able to read faster, to finish a book two-, perhaps as much as three-, times faster than I usually do, and to occasionally take my time and read slower, if I like. I like the idea of actually having the option to read something at least twice as fast as I do now.

    The second category of reading speed, which is *true* speed-reading, they say, begins at 900+ wpm, and that brings us to a realm which is most definitely "beyond the fields we know," to quote Lord Dunsany's famous quip. While I'm whole-heartedly a fan of venturing "beyond the fields we know," the realm of my fandom doesn't include super-fast speed-reading.

    I love reading novels in all manner of genres — mysteries, suspense, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror (I'm currently reading a book by Clive Barker), even an occasional (GASP!) romance, etc — but when I'm writing, I prefer to write fantasy (more the stranger and weirder sort than the mediaeval), as well as some science fiction. I may be wrong in what I'm about to say, but in my experience I've seen a lot more influence of the classics, especially mythology, within science fiction, fantasy, and horror than in other genres or in mainstream fiction. Since I like to write the weird stuff, that provides a glimpse into part of my motivation in taking the speed-reading course... to gobble up all those delicious classics tout de suite! Yum! LOL :D

    (By the way, MIDDLEMARCH is the favourite novel of a Kiwi friend of mine. I've not read it myself... yet. LOL)