I was sent Michael S. Rosenwald’s “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say,” and Steven Poole’s “The internet isn’t harming our love of ‘deep reading’, it’s cultivating it” by a friend who I’m going to assume has read a little of this blog, since she found things that were spot-on with some of what I’ve been thinking about. Or, maybe she just knows I get angry about marginalization of digital culture a lot.
I’m not going to lie. I skimmed the first article. Rosenwald makes a highly dramatic and panicky claim that kids these days can’t read a novel because our poor, innocent brains have been changed so that we can’t even sit down and read Middlemarch anymore. As if the Victorians actually sat down and read Middlemarch as Middlemarch, but that’s an argument for another day. Plagued by all of the demeaning, agency-seizing, crisis-buying-into rhetoric of many pieces about digital culture and those who are entrenched in it the most–young people–this article is a good example of what I’m going to call the crisis of linear reading. Because, it has nothing to do with depth or length; it has to do with a process of learning.
The second article responds to the issues raised in the first. Steven Poole argues wonderfully that okay, maybe our brains are changing, but why should we care? Deep reading is a cultural good, and cultures change, so in this very significant transition, what’s the problem with changing how we read? What I love in this article is, of course, the way he treats young people as agents in our own learning and living processes. Unlike so much writing lamenting the internet generation’s stupidity, lack of attention, and lack of commitment (among other things), Poole recognizes that there is legitimacy, intelligence, and a new way of doing things in how digital people read: “According to John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital, for example, a teenager’s ‘news-gathering process’ alternated skimming or ‘grazing’ with a ‘deep dive’ when she found something she could really get her teeth into.”
I would add, we’re the Wikipedia generation, the tab generation: we’ve learned to read via a kind of transfer. We gather information and writing from all different, multimedia, sources, fairly simultaneously. You’re reading a news article. You click a link on the side to a related article–you right click and open in a new tab. You jump over there and read a little bit, then look up a person mentioned on Wikipedia, which leads you to right click on a few links and open a few more tabs, until you are satisfied that you’ve learned enough, not about that topic, but around it.
In my thesis research, the undergraduate researchers that I spoke with talked about research in terms of the internet–none of my questions dealt explicitly with digital anything–for them, research is online, and research is learning. For them, research looked like “clicking links” and “opening tabs” and “following a thread” until it’s “nine tabs later” and you’ve done research.
Poole ends his essay with a critique of the division between “long reads” and skimmable pieces. The term is “infantalizing” he argues; what is wrong with “essay”? I’m not sure I disagree, but I think that the pieces we read on the internet are more than “essays”–an ill-defined but negatively-(school-)connoted genre; a flat piece of paper with some of your worst writing on it. OR, worse, an exclusive genre, published in academic journals, which indicates who is a legitimate scholar and who is not. I want to read blogs, long and short; I want to read videos, movies, TV shows; I want to read Facebook posts (though they should only be long if really warranted, as you can say a lot that can be deep-read in a few words). I don’t want to read essays. I just want to read everything, long and short.