To Read or Not to Read

“The only thing these kids do is watch TV and play cricket. The word ‘study’ doesn’t even exist in their dictionary. Goodness knows how they’re going to pass their exams!” – an exasperated piece of dialogue children of my age used to hear with nagging monotony during our school years. Now, in that handed-down diatribe, TV has been replaced by the internet, and cricket by video games, as the main culprits for students’ bad grades. Numerous studies churned out over the recent past, mainly by western scholars, have buttressed this widespread parental opinion.

According to neuroscience research, the myriad distractions on the web have altered the circuitry in our brain, thanks to its “neuroplasticity”. This has affected the way we read and how we comprehend what we read. Netizens have apparently lost the art of reading. They do not have the patience to read things in detail. They prefer skimming and scanning. Tweets and Facebook posts comprise their main – and often, only – reading diet. Deep reading is a practice on the verge of extinction. Or so these “pop science” studies seem to suggest.

In The Shallows Nicholas Carr, American writer on technology and culture, says

What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

Paper as a medium of reading is far from dead (yet) but it has already made authors like Carr nostalgic. But there is a major fallacy in comparing print books with the web. When there is a book in my hand, the only thing that I can do with it is, read (unless I want to hit someone on the head with it!). But when I open my web browser, there is so much that I can do – check my mails, pay bills, order food, watch videos… It is erroneous to pit the print medium against the whole of the internet while discussing reading. It is very tempting to treat “screen” as the equivalent of “paper”, but that is not a fair comparison. There are so many factors that go to decide what you see on a screen and how you interact with it.
The technology of paper/print is much simpler than that of internet-enabled devices. The real comparison should be between paperbacks and e-book readers, or probably between newspapers and news websites – in isolation.

Reading is not natural to us. We have to “learn” to read. We have to “develop” the habit of reading and actively pursue it to become efficient readers. Carr himself acknowledges how hard this task is.

To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T S Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call ‘the still point of the turning world’. They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention.

If the task of reading a book is so hard, it is but inevitable that book readers in any society will be a minority. Not everybody is interested in the beauty of words, the emotions they evoke and the curiosity they satiate; moreover, everybody does not have the luxury of time that books demand. Most of us are only looking for quick information or instant gratification. As Union College psycho­logist Christopher Chabris explains, “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’. We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (as quoted in The Shallows).

But shallow reading is not the after-effect of the internet. My neighbour, an old gentleman of 60 – a loyal, long-standing reader of the Marathi newspaper Sakal – only reads headlines and the first two paragraphs of major news stories, and never sets his eyes on the editorial pages. Deep reading or shallow reading is less a function of the medium and more of the aptitude of a person. The internet is not making people skim and scan. The majority in any population has always been the “skimmers”, and serious readers will always remain a minority. It’s only that the internet has made this contrast very visible and has given us the means to look at people’s reading habits more accurately.

Whenever a big-scale communication technology is introduced, it greatly fascinates a group of people and triggers panic attacks among others. It happened with printed books (Socrates’ lament against the written word is well known), it happened with TV and it is now happening with the internet as well. People take time to adjust to a new technology as its nuances and full-scale impacts are not readily clear in the beginning. Hence, a bit of sociological and historical perspective may offer us valuable guidance. And as far as reading is concerned, we should find reassurance in the fact that, the online community of book users, had 25 million members in 2013 – and that number is growing at a pace faster than you can flick through the pages of a book.

(This article was originally published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, issue dated November 15, 2014.)


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