On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times is an article by Motoko Rich titled, "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" It’s the first in a series that will explore "how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read." This installment focuses on the somewhat new debate as to whether online reading promotes literacy, or is detrimental to it. As Rich weighs out both sides of the issue in clear, measured prose, the central point that should have been made is completely lost amidst a sea of statistics and pedigreed quotes (the jab and hook of any journalist, to be sure).
To clarify: Online reading in this context does not refer to the ingestion of long articles and stories that just happen to be on the Internet, but could just as easily have been printed. Rather, the debate is about un-linear reading, reading broken up by hyperlinks and tabs and blurbs, which allow readers to "skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles, and ends."
Rich cites an NEA study ("a sobering report") that found only one in five 17-year olds reads for fun every day, down from one in three in the eighties. But then ‘reading’ is later defined basically as data analysis, or a "way to experience information." If this is what students are taught reading is, which seems to be the case, and I suppose has probably always been the case, it’s no wonder that that kids don’t read. How many kids do math for fun in their free time? I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is one in five, too.
The reason I say the article is mostly worthless is because it considers reading only as a means by which to take in and process information, and then implicitly chastises younger generations for not reading books. There is no mention, sadly, of the pleasure one derives from losing oneself in a narrative or, on the non-fiction side of things, immersing oneself in a subject. If reading were depicted in this way, which it should be, I think there would be more cause to lament. (Rich does have an essay that touches on that here.) In effect, Rich lends credence to the suspect merits of online reading, without getting into the real benefits of books.
To temper my wonking, here is a video of Ernie and Bert rapping.
The article’s supporting cast of experts likewise define reading in scientific terms. "Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits you might get if you’re in the 30-second digital mode," said Ken Pugh, a neuroscientist at Yale. Ooooooh, sounds enriching, doesn’t it?
But the thing is, reading ain’t for the head. It’s for the soul, or whatever that murk inside our chests is.
(And yes, there’s a fundamental reading level one must attain in order to function in the everyday world, but the NYT article is about books, and the decline of readership, which is why I’m addressing/about-to-adress why people read books, and why the experience of a book is unlikely to be replicated online.)
To read a book for its informational value is like joining a soccer team just to burn the calories. Yeah it’s a nice side effect – people who read more novels score better on reading tests (surprise surprise); likewise, people who play soccer in their spare time are probably in better shape than people who sit on the couch. But if you’re playing correctly, then that means you’re actually engaged in the game, immersed in it, caught in the flow and the surges of adrenaline, you care about the final score, and hate the other team, and also maybe hate your coach who doesn’t play you as many minutes as you deserve, the bastard. It’s more than a work-out.
This isn’t just about novels, either. Non-fiction suffers, too. Consider Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. If read correctly, one doesn’t come away from that book simply with factoids about black holes and quantum physics; rather it helps one understand, on a larger scale, but in a small way, one’s connection to the universe.
As Nicholas Carr points out in his Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" the fractured nature of online reading necessarily annihilates the act of engaging with a narrative. This, I think, is the real danger.
A similar idea is depicted in the current issue of the New Yorker, in an article about insight called "The Eureka Hunt" by Jonah Lehrer. He interviews a cognitive neuroscientist who believes that "Language is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time. It needs to see the forest and the trees." The left hemisphere excels at denotation – storing the primary meanings of words; meanwhile the right hemisphere deals with connotation – the emotional charges in a sentence or a metaphor. "The right hemisphere is what helps you see the forest," is the scientist’s next quote. But when one is distracted, he goes on, as one might be on the Internet, the right hemisphere’s functioning becomes limited.
Meaning, I think, that when reading on the Internet, we can still process direct and obvious information – the stuff they’re concerned about on proficiency tests – but the nuances of literature get lost. Unfortunately, some of the best literature is the most nuanced. Unfortunately, though I suspect Motoko Rich might sympathize with this, it goes unmentioned in the article.
A last thought:
Metaphor. From what I can glean from Wittgenstein, which isn’t a lot, when we communicate we are endeavoring to express things that are actually, in a purer sense, inexpressible. Every word ever spoken, then, is a mini-metaphor. We don’t actually feel a word called ‘sadness’ – ‘sadness’ is just the term we’ve come up with to best describe certain awful emotions. The feeling is greater than the word. Likewise, authors use metaphor to give their stories meaning beyond the actual sentences written on physical pages. To make a gross blanket statement, by and large online content does not make use of metaphor. It seems generally to be more reductive. Blogs are boiled-down opinions, and wikis are generalized information. It’s fodder for arguments, rather than thoughts. Hyperlinks are not metaphors, they do not lead out to Real Life, but rather to other facets of the Internet. It’s just that we’re beginning to make the mistake of considering those two entities – Real Life and the Internet – to be the same.