Monday, August 3, 2015

What it means to read

I have written posts in the past about the way slow, careful reading of fiction, especially, can lead us to a deeper level of consciousness--quite apart from the value it has as a window into understanding reality.

A recent article in The Nation by Joanna Scott on the challenge of reading difficult books caught my eye, but mainly because she quoted a scholar from American University (Naomi Baron) who asks the question: Are digital media altering our understanding what it means to read? 

Of course, the answer is yes, but how? Baron's study concluded that the attention span in the U.K. has decreased by half--from five minutes to seven seconds--since 1998. I don't know the scope of her study, but I was struck by another of her findings: that among university students in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, there is a widespread preference for reading printed texts--even as many libraries are, regrettably, disposing of much of their print collections.

What happens when young people today, with their penchant for text messaging, confront a long, serious novel?  No data exists yet, apparently.

What effect does the lack of sustained reading have on writing--a topic of major interest to me as a teacher of writing?  I continue to remind would-be writers, especially if they want to become authors, that the first step in being skillful as a writer is to be a good reader, paying attention to the style and structure of what they read.

Reading--the kind that promotes interiority--is basic to learning and understanding the world and the self, and it seems to me that without it, the attention span of students will continue to decline, with disastrous results for them and for society.

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