The lost art of reading in the age of information

Calgary Herald, April 7, 2016: Before I even rolled out of bed the other morning, I read a heartbreaking story about a British woman whose husband drowned saving their son, a fun little piece about camping in an Airstream in Italy and something with a lot of statistics about how rising wages for women have them holding off getting married.

I didn’t get all the way through that last one. I think I got stuck on one of the stats — that women still only make about 80 per cent what men do (and yet we continue to pay about 80 per cent more to get our shirts dry cleaned — what is with that?). Besides it was time to get up, plug in my phone and retrieve the papers from the front porch.

We consume more information before breakfast than most of human history could fathom absorbing in an entire lifetime. But are we any smarter for it?

That ancient smarty pants Socrates would say, ‘No way, Jose.’

The Greek philosopher was worried that the printed word would mislead his students into thinking they had it all figured out. He was concerned reading would lead people into believing they “had accessed the crux of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it,” writes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

There are no short cuts to wisdom (and virtue), Socrates and Wolf argue. Instead, we need to do the hard work of turning ideas over and over in our minds and well, really thinking about stuff.

Uh oh.

So much for those re-tweets.

“Sound bites, text bites, and mind bites are a reflection of a culture that has forgotten or become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information to allow itself time to think,” says Wolf, the author of several books including Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

“My major worry is that, confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read. The omnipresence of multiple distractions for attention — and the brain’s own natural attraction to novelty — contribute to a mindset toward reading that seeks to reduce information to its lowest conceptual denominator.”

(You still here?  Or are you over on Snapchat sending someone a bunny face?)

Wolf argues that we need to spend time with our noses buried deep in actual printed books to use our “most preciously acquired deep reading processes.” Forget the online shiny pennies and the Facebook likes. But turning everything off and going deep on the couch for that deep read can be a challenge when we’re used to a constant stream of information, most of it entertaining and some of it even useful.

I’ve managed to burn through a few novels lately but I have been reading Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth for months. It’s a great book. I am enlightened on nearly every page. Maybe it’s because I know how it ends, but I can’t seem to read more than 20 minutes at a time before I get distracted by all the information calling to me from my phone.

Never mind books. I even struggle to focus watching the occasional Netflix series. I am in the middle of the terrific BBC show Happy Valley and I can’t seem to stop picking up my phone to Google plot summaries and see whether or not the courageous cop gets her daughter’s rapist.

We want the next nugget of information before even finishing the one we’re on. Take the race to be leader of the free world. Who else is tired of the endless commentary, polls and disgusting Trumpisms?  I just want to read ahead to the part where The Donald ends up disgraced, broke and orange in a trailer park.

Same with that other charmer, Jian Ghomeshi. My brain has jumped ahead in that saga, too, and I’m itching to see how his inevitable and meticulously planned redemption story goes down. After being acquitted at his first trial for sexual assault (there is a second one in June), he’ll go away for a few years and re-emerge with a glossy memoir.

I won’t read his book. But maybe by the time he writes it, I will have been able to stay away from my phone long enough to finish reading Zealot.

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