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.

Reading makes you smarter
Wolf is the author of a book I’ve been reading: Proust and the Squid, about the cultural history and neuroscience of reading.*** In it she discusses how reading – an acquired skill, not a genetic one – changes our brains to make connections and circuits. We learn in the first six years of our life what it took humanity to learn in the first several thousand years of civilization. As Wolf says in her book:

Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. . . . Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be reshaped by experience.

Reading was something we had to teach ourselves. It’s not innate or inherited.**** It’s something each one of us has to learn and develop individually, and need to practice regularly and frequently to retain it. It’s a skill like driving, skating or juggling. In the 2011 Guardian article she adds,

…the human brain was never meant to read. Not text, not papyrus, not computer screens, not tablets. There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. Rather, our ability to read represents our brain’s protean capacity to learn something outside our repertoire by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Indeed, every time we learn a new skill – whether knitting or playing the cello or using Facebook – that is what we are doing.

Our brains are like muscles: they need exercise to retain shape and form and to grow. When we stop reading – say by watching TV or playing computer games instead – or drop our deep reading in favour of skimming, our brains get lax. The connections fade. The circuits shrink. We get less smart, less able to make analytical decisions. But we can rebuild it just like we can rebuild muscles by going back to reading. As noted in the Open Educational Database:

In a six-month daily reading program from Carnegie Mellon, scientists discovered that the volume of white matter in the language area of the brain actually increased. Further, they showed that brain structure can be improved with this training, making it more important than ever to adopt a healthy love of reading.

If not reading makes us stupid, can reading therefore make us smarter? Yes, say researchers. As Dan Hurley wrote in The Guardian back in 2012:

…recent scientific studies have confirmed that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic… “Fluid intelligence” is that ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns. Of course, you can read little or nothing at all and still be brilliant at “reading between the lines” of a conversation. But in today’s world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century.

Reading – fiction and poetry in particular – also makes us better people by improving our ability to empathize and relate to others. A 2013 article in The Guardian documents research at the New School for Social Research in New York, that, “…have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.”

A 2017 article on Big Think makes the point that reading is work, often hard work, while skimming is easy, but inadequate for our intellectual and emotional development:

Reading, of course, requires patience, diligence, and determination. Scanning headlines and retweeting quips is not going to make much cognitive difference. If anything, such sweet nothings are dangerous, the literary equivalent of sugar addiction. Information gathering in under 140 characters is lazy. The benefits of contemplation through narrative offer another story. The benefits are plenty, which is especially important in a distracted, smartphone age in which one-quarter of American children don’t learn to read. This not only endangers them socially and intellectually, but cognitively handicaps them for life.

Hard work makes us stronger. We rise to challenges, we become stronger and better when we tackle adversity. We become like the Eloi when we shrink from challenge and life is simply too easy or convenient. Reading is just one of the challenges that help us avoid that.

The author, Derek Beres, adds:

Novel reading is a great way to practice being human. Rather than sprints and punches, how about something more primitive and necessary in a society, like empathy? As you dive deeper into Rabbit Angstrom’s follies or Jason Taylor coming of age, you not only feel their pain and joy. You actually experience it.

Beres sums it up beautifully: “Reading is like any skill. You have to practice it, regularly and constantly.”

And so I shall, as I do daily: read and read some more. It’s a skill that if I lost it, I would lose much of my reason for living. And as 2019 awakens, I encourage you, dear reader, to do the same to keep your brain working, active and vigorous.

* The Time Machine (1895). Many critics have analyzed the metaphors Wells was suggesting in his two divisions of humanity. Was it about class as some suggest? A dystopian warning about the future of capitalism? In this vein, Neil Ascherson wrote in the Independent,

Never in history have consumers known so little about producers and products – about who makes things and how. Those in Taipei, Karachi, Bogota or Wroclaw who make clothes, cars, dishwashers, laptops and medicines for the Eloi might as well live in underground caverns. But in time, without the stimulus of necessity, the Eloi will grow soft and defenceless and lose their memory of any skill but eating and giggling. Then, at last, begins the hour of the hungry Morlocks.

For me, I see it as a tale about those who live for pleasure and convenience – the Eloi, who simply enjoy life (until they get eaten) but do no work and are completely distanced from the mechanics of the devices that support them – and those who do the actual work to keep the world running. Not unlike the illiterates versus the literates we seem to be devolving into.

** As a former municipal politician and an avid council watcher today, I have experience in what happens when our elected representatives don’t read the material they debate and make decisions on. It was evident from the questions they asked at the table and the way they voted last term that the majority of our council members did not read most of what they received in their agenda packages. As one of their first acts, to avoid being influenced by reading the previous council immediately cancelled their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine – Canada’s best source of peer-written articles and opinions pieces about municipal governance. The result was a council that depended on verbal advice from outsiders to determine our community’s future. These less-literate elected representatives lurched from one bungled debacle to another; something that could have been mitigated if not entirely avoided had they actually read their agendas fully.

*** I’ve also been reading Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in parallel with Wolf.

**** While not an inherited skill, children who grow up in a house where parents read are more likely to be readers themselves. As this article in The Conversation notes:

Research has typically found that shared reading experiences are highly beneficial for young people. Benefits of shared reading include facilitating enriched language exposure, fostering the development of listening skills, spelling, reading comprehension and vocabulary, and establishing essential foundational literacy skills. They are also valued as a shared social opportunity between parents and their children to foster positive attitudes toward reading.

But studies show reading to children is becoming less and less common. A 2018 story in The Guardian noted research that found that only half of pre-school children in the UK were being read to daily, a drop of a fifth over the last five years. The piece warned that “the decline is a significant threat to child development.”

…the decline correlated with an increase of almost a fifth in the proportion of toddlers watching online video content daily, and warned that the “steep decline” in reading to young children “signalled a significant threat to child development, with potential long-term social impact”.

I was extremely fortunate to be raised by avid readers. Trips to the library were regular and welcomed events. My parents spent evenings reading together. When my mother’s eyes began to fail her with macular degeneration, late in her life, and she could not read even large-print books, she got a Kobo reader so she could enlarge the type enough to allow her to continue to read. She read every day even to her final day at age 95.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One comment


    Why Reading Books Should Be Your Priority, According to Science
    You’re not doing yourself any favors if you’re in the 26 percent of American adults who haven’t read even part of a book within the past year.

    Twenty six percent – an appallingly high number of adults who don’t read books. Helps explain how Trump and Ford got elected, though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top