The Long Read Lost

Reading by candlelight
“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace,” wrote Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper Paperbacks, 2019). It’s the sequel to her previous book on reading and neuroscience, Proust and the Squid (Harper, 2007). In that latter book, Wolf famously wrote,

We are not only what we read, we are how we read.

Reading — Marcel Proust called it a “fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” — is a breathtakingly remarkable, and uniquely human talent, yet one that we have no genetic disposition for, like we have for speaking or for social behaviour. No one is born knowing how to read. It must be learned by each of us individually, painstakingly from a young age and practiced through a lifetime. It is the classic case of nurture over nature. Yet there are an estimated 800 million illiterate people in the world today.

Learning to read changes our brains, rewires our neural networks, creates new connections, and helps us think. Not in a metaphorical sense: the changes have been mapped by neuroscientists like Wolf and her colleagues. Yet reading (and its co-host inventions, writing, and the alphabet; itself even younger at a mere 3,800 years old), is a very recent talent, historically speaking. The oldest known record of writing is a mere 5,500 years old; the oldest Sumerian tablets are about 4,400 years old. The first complete alphabet (ancient Greek: with symbols for vowels as well as consonants) is from around 750 BCE. In modern times, the first book was produced on a Western printing press only about 570 years ago. That’s a remarkably short time in the 300,000-400,000-year history of our species.

“In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures,” Wolf added. Right from the beginning of writing, stories were part of the written record: the imaginations of ancient civilizations were carved on clay and in stone, for us to read even today.

Literate cultures. The term might refer to cultures which have a reasonably high level in the ability to actually read regardless of its content, but could also refer to a civilization that has a culture of deep, passionate, and lengthy reading: one that celebrates in books, poetry, magazines, and other forms of the written word. It’s a civilization that has book clubs, discusses and shares books, has public libraries and bookstores, poetry festivals, and has plays performed and authors celebrated. A literate culture even has cursive writing (somewhat of a canary in the coal mine of literacy).

We are such a culture, even though — at least from my perspective — we continue to move at an accelerating pace to a more visually-oriented, non-reading culture, away from the written form; a short form culture where the tweet, the sound bite, and the YouTube video all have more reach than a long article or story. Our attachment to many of the longer written forms is dissipating. Long reads online are often prefaced by the initialism TL:DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read” with a tweet-sized precis for those who will not (or cannot) read the longer piece.

The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations. (P. 2)

We live in an astoundingly complex, complicated, demanding, challenging world. To understand it even at a very basic level, we need to be able to read and read deeply; not simply watch videos or read tweets. We need to ignore the noise of social media and open books, newspapers (real newspapers, not merely the local ad-wrappers), and magazines to get a fulsome explanation of what is happening in our lives. No one can understand or learn about politics, economics, or science from tweets.

Not reading deeply is plunging us into an increasingly anti-intellectual age, suspicious of learning and science. We have world leaders who are barely literate or are even functionally illiterate, and yet who take pride in their ignorance. The result is the proliferation of conspiracy cults, pseudoscience, anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements, and both political and religious fundamentalism (most of which claptrap, not surprisingly, originates from the right wing of the political spectrum).

And it’s not just Donald Trump, although he is the epitome of the illiterate, uninformed, conspiracy-addled leader. Look at the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and even here in Ontario: populist (rightwing) leaders like these share similar attributes, including a distrust of institutions, science, and experts. I’ve served with members of our local municipal council who never even read agendas or staff reports, let alone books (we now have a council replete with such non-readers). The result at all levels of government is evident in the decay of public debate, the reduction to populist, slogan-based oratory, slovenly and uninformed decision making, and lackluster governance. But I digress.

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The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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Collingwood’s first post-literate council

Post-literacyAt the Corporate & Community Services standing committee meeting this week, the committee discussed the Art on the Street festival, its operation and management to be taken over by the BIA. That’s probably a good thing because any affinity to culture and cultural events at the council table evaporated early this term. A cup of yogurt has more culture in it than The Block has. The whole ‘cultural economy’ thing and all the benefits that cultural tourism can bring has simply flown away this term.*

That report led to a discussion of a local Word on the Street festival, a “national celebration of literacy and the written word.” Apparently there is a move afoot to bring it back (it’s held in September, so I suppose that won’t be until fall 2018). Councillor Kevin Lloyd semi-jokingly suggested that council entertain regular poetry readings at the start of each council meeting to help publicize the event. There was an uncomfortable silence at the committee table (The Block not being able to easily recognize irony or sarcasm).

The stolid faces of The Block collective were shaken by his (somewhat sarcastic) suggestion. The idea that they might have to sit, in stony Politburo-like silence while someone read a poem clearly unnerved them. Even Sleepy Councillor Ecclestone tossed and turned in his sleep, in the grips of a bad dream where words and phrases were dancing around him with menace and malice.

How were they supposed to respond to poetry? Would they make the usual banal “gee that was swell” comments they toss out like candy to staff for run-of-the-mill reports? Or – a frightening thought – would they be expected to comment intelligently and coherently on the nature of the poem, its symbolism, its rhyming scheme, its use of metaphor, how it compared with the work of other poets? That would take The Block far from the safety of their comfort zone over the deep intellectual ocean, a place they had never ventured to.

When The Block plumb the depths of their collective intellect, they don’t need a ruler, much less a measuring tape to measure down to their seabed. Their ship of state is already stranded on its shallow reefs. Keep in mind that their greatest collective intellectual achievement this term is a bylaw that prohibits residents from throwing birdseed on their driveway. To expect them to do anything intelligent with culture – you’re better off wishing for something more achievable. Like world peace. Or the overnight reversal of climate change. Or the Rapture.

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Does anyone still read books?

Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.
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