April 7, 2014

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing."

Said Maryanne Wolf, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain."
Humans... seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia....
Haven't we always had to shift between different styles of paying attention? Imagine us in evolutionary times, before the printed word, when we were out and about looking for food, trying to survive. The ancestors who contributed to our brain structure had to skim and scan and then lock onto details. Isn't this agility functional?

But Wolf bemoans students' inability to read "Middlemarch" and William James and Henry James: "The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James."

Maybe they are rejecting this kind of writing for good reason. Their elders impose this reading on them, but the key question is whether they can shift to accurate and closely detailed reading when they've found something they think is worth their attention.

23 comments:

Robert Cook said...

Teachers should also be mindful that teenagers are typically not prepared to understand or appreciate the adult themes of much classic literature. I don't assert they're unable to understand or appreciate such themes, but most teenagers of today have not had the life experience to make sense of much that pertains to adult sensibilities and concerns.

The archaic syntax and ornate vocabulary of much classic literature simply compounds the problem, but is not the crux of the problem.

Bill said...

"traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia"

Widespread literacy (especially "traditional deep reading") certainly didn't exist prior to Gutenberg and probably didn't take hold for at least a couple centuries afterward. To argue that humans have "developed" and refined this capability over several millennia is trying to fit how things are today with out they were historically.

The fact that people need to skim to assess contentment is more the result of the tremendous amount of information that engulfs everyone day-to-day. Of course, the loss of careful consideration and discernment for the writings that demand and require this level of connection is lost.

We're often too impatient to muddle through these swamps when a quick and easy high-reward shiny object can quickly seize our attention.

Henry said...

Let's put the CIA on this problem.

Krumhorn said...

I'm more concerned about writing skills which appear to be diminished by whatever writing is practiced with the thumbs. Along the same lines, I can't imagine how anyone can be proficient at basic math if they haven't memorized multiplication tables.

While I can't can't really blame the libruls for the former, I certainly blame them for the latter.

- Krumhorn

Ps. Love the blog photo, Ann

mtrobertsattorney said...

The problem is that they wont be able to judge whether an essay on a complicated subject is "worth their attention" unless they already have the ability to read complex writing. And that ability can only be developed by practice.

Left on their own, students are not likely to struggle with this kind of writing. That's why "their elders have to impose this reading on them."

SOJO said...

Hated Henry James. During the Palin years, it became clear that no one who was made to read his books in college got the point anyway.

Peter said...


People have become accustomed to much faster pacing in fiction.

In TV drama, there's normally a "grabber" within the first few minutes (seconds?)- as there must be, if the viewer is not to change the channel.

But written fiction also has a faster pace. Although the date for this faster pacing is well before the Internet, probably before television.

19th century novels just have glacial pacing; it can take a hundred pages before much of anything actually happens (although there may be extensive description of the characters and their circumstances).

Contemporary readers (even older ones) are just not used to that; it really does take extraordinary perseverence not to set the book aside. "I'll read it later" we say (only "later" never quite happens).

It may be rewarding to keep reading, but it's far from easy for the contemporary reader to do.

surfed said...

True. I superficially read during the day and save my deep reading in the evening...more or less. That also goes toward commenting. I'm usually very busy during the day and have little time to formulate well thought out comments on the fly beyond facile one liners...with the admission that salt water kills brain cells.

Richard Dolan said...

The brain does this, the brain does that, all with its "traditional deep reading circuitry" -- oh, please, what a lot of nonsense. The article is talking about things people do, not things that brains do -- skimmning a text, lazy ways of reading, not paying attention, etc. Those are all behaviours that anyone who recognizes them (and everyone discussed in the article does) can change if they want to. It's certainly true that some habits, especially bad habits, can be hard to change. But that's hardly a recent discovery of neuroscience.

This article is a classic example of the mereological fallacy at work.

Henry said...

Over 200 years ago, the readers of contemporary thrillers were considered so shallow that Jane Austen gleefully mocked them (Northanger Abbey). I don't think anything has changed. Our earnest professors complain that no one reads Middlemarch and the James boys. Their predecessors complained about students that didn't appreciate Virgil and were too lazy to read Euripides in the original Greek. And so it goes.

Maybe the problem isn't what people watch, but what people already read. Most writing today, fiction and nonfiction, is lucid, fast-paced and strongly focused on character. Grand themes and deep analysis come second.

It is especially notable in the nonfiction best sellers. These books are written by journalists in narrative style. I just started Michael Lewis's Flash Boys, which is a book that pulls you in immediately with strong characterizations and David Mamet dialogue. Lewis is one of the best of the current nonfiction writers; you might also think of Laura Hillenbrand or Sebastian Junger as prototypes.

And this isn't a new thing. I recently read Macaulay's History of England followed by Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Macaulay is by far the greater writer and the deeper thinker; Churchill modeled him stylistically but Churchill had a different programme: he was writing journalistic history, the same way Lewis and his merry company do now.

And why not? It's good stuff.

PB Reader said...

Great. I suppose now we need government regulation to ensure we read things cover-to-cover and can't exercise judgement to stop when we've endured enough. Next step is the required reading list and examination before we can read what we want to read.

SJ said...

I'm with @Bill.

Literacy is a recent thing, and wasn't broadly spread in various cultures.

Large parts of Europe had low-to-nonexistent literacy as the norm, 2000 years ago. Even 1000 years ago, literacy in Europe was confined to a small, wealthy class.

Outside of Europe, what happened?

Even though the Caliphate became home to a period of literary and scientific growth, was literacy common?

What pathway led towards widespread literacy in India and China? Has that path come to a conclusion yet?

Sigivald said...

I've read James, I've read Eliot.

The real problem is that they're not that impressive, though they're not bad writers either.

PB Reader said...

I'll bet Professor Wolf also blames the students when they stop listening to her in class, too.

Crunchy Frog said...

Sorry Althouse, but I feel the same way about Fitzgerald. There's only so much flowery metaphor and picture painting that I am willing to put up with before I start screaming, "Get to the damn point already!"

Eeyore Rifkin said...

Les Intellectuals! --William James

Marty Keller said...

The real issue isn't the capacity for "deep reading" per se but for reasoning. Post-literary communications are based on stimulating emotional centers in the brain, not the reasoning centers. Images, video, music, and Twitter-style bullet points are designed to provoke an emotional, not a thoughtful, response. Neil Postman covered this thoroughly almost 30 years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Nicholas Carr updated his work a couple years ago in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (both available through the Althouse Amazon portal!).

Michael K said...

"The archaic syntax and ornate vocabulary of much classic literature simply compounds the problem, but is not the crux of the problem."

A lot of kids are watching too much TV and not reading enough. Reading more is the answer but they do better, I think, beginning with easy to read things like novels and, for some kids, science fiction. I began with western novels and went from there to Shakespeare and Poe.

Michael K said...

"19th century novels just have glacial pacing; it can take a hundred pages before much of anything actually happens (although there may be extensive description of the characters and their circumstances)."

If you think they are slow, read "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Volume I is the introduction. Then if you are really into dull, read "The Fairie Queen" by Spencer. My English Literature professor told us he went on a sea voyage with only that poem to get through it.

Michael said...

Henry

I would agree. The difficult syntax of a James or a Gibbon or Macaulay is overcome with patience. In fact, the rhythms of both the latter become infectious and will find their way into your own prose as Churchill found. Good writers all, including the James boys, but writers who take some paying attention to.

rhhardin said...

It's a dog problem.

The dog is willing to accept that I'm working at the computer and so she has to wait until it's time to do something, but is not willing to accept that about books.

Jack Wayne said...

If she thinks people can't handle Eliot and James, then she's never met a support programmer trying to fix a bug in spaghetti code.

John Lynch said...

I'm not bored by literature. I am bored by the literary criticism that is now the point of reading literature.