The “wallpaper” on my phone is a rich, lamplit shot of old leatherbound books shelved behind a spiral staircase. The plaster walls of our house are covered with bookshelves. Books have sheltered me, taught me, and given me solace my whole life.
It bemuses me that more than half the people in this country do not read a single book in the space of a year.
In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informed us that we were spending about fifteen minutes a day reading for pleasure—and two hours and fifty minutes watching tv. In 2021, the tv total had risen to more than three hours a day.
Reading was no longer even measured.
Its absence chilled me. In Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, Johann Hari describes paperbound print as “the medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past four hundred years have been figured out and explained. And that experience is now in free fall.”
We have all read (not “watched” or “heard”) dozens of diatribes about the lost attention span, the downfall of print, et cetera. Even I am bored by this particular catastrophe. As long as I can find books I want to read—and since the best travel well over centuries, I foresee no shortage—I will trundle on….
But I keep reading Hari, grinding that sore tooth into my inflamed gum. A literacy expert tells him that reading from screens encourages scanning and skimming, “a manic skip and jump from one thing to another” that sounds painfully similar to the way we now think and live.
The insidious part, the expert continued, is that “this scanning and skimming bleeds over. It also starts to color or influence how we read on paper.” Even I, who fell in love with books back when Dick and Jane were running around with Spot, notice my eyes racing across a page of beautiful sentences. At bedtime, I have to reread Arundhati Roy’s exquisite descriptions because I was skimming them like they were headlines in a digital newsletter.
When we do focus, we learn better on paper than on screen. Our minds wander less when we read than when we listen? Even children integrate the information more fully when they read it than when they watch a video. In How We Read Now, linguistics professor Naomi Baron paddles us through a cascade of such research.
YouTube videos are fabulous if you need a DIY tutorial to fix the sink, but when it comes to drawing abstract inferences, recalling details, and getting a sense of chronology…books reign. I wince when my husband, who knows better, retreats to his office to hunt down ten-minute history videos for his class. This is, he tells me, necessary now. I do not want to believe him. Then I read what a Harvard professor told Hari: “that he struggled to get his students there to read even quite short books, and he increasingly offered them podcasts and YouTube clips they could watch instead.” At Harvard, yet.
The new “flipped” classrooms, in which students read the course material before the lecture, sound like such a good idea. But Baron and a colleague in Norway surveyed U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, and they found that almost half were decreasing their reading requirements. One-third of U.S. faculty were replacing texts with video materials. Soon those classroom discussions will be film critiques.
There is no need to return to a screenless world in which we pore over medieval manuscripts. Every medium does what it does better than any other medium. Stories told around a bonfire inscribe the tales in our hearts. In audiobooks, the inflections of emotion help the plot and characters stick. When you are exhausted, stressed, sick, mopey, or bored silly, tv is a perfect way to transport yourself. Movies on the big screen are not only aesthetically powerful but social, letting you feel a crowd’s response along with your own. There is nothing like a good podcast when you have a long commute or a ton of boring housework to do. Social media’s instant sharing is a good way to remember what we all, well, share.
We should keep all our media. But we cannot lose our books. They let us absorb subtle ideas, page back to think about them a little more, enter another person’s mind. That does not happen in 280 characters, and as Hari points out, “if your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting.” The few times I have felt compelled to post a strong opinion on Twitter, some hot take I was just sure was incisive—I often regretted it later, because somebody who knew more casually pointed out a salient fact that changed everything. Were I writing at length about the topic, I would have done enough research and given the subject enough thought. Were I reading about it, I could have analyzed more closely, considering various aspects before I clicked on that little bluebird half-cocked.
Even those who love books are discouraging them: an ad on Lithub—of all places!—reads, “Writing books is not a good idea. 96% of books sell less than 1,000 copies—which means a better financial strategy would be to get those 1,000 fans to subscribe to an author monthly, rather than pay $10 every three years when a book comes out.” Are you slowly paying off the book they will write three years from now? Or do you just receive little blurbs once a month instead of a big ol’ book?
Either way, the facts are incontrovertible: we are losing our inclination to read slowly and steadily, letting the words sink in. We are also losing the old linear logic that drove me crazy until it vanished, replaced by no reasoning whatsoever. Causes still have effects, acts still have consequences. Yet much that is said in the public arena is unreflective and nonsensical—and meanwhile, we are back to banning books.
“What happens,” Hari asks, “when that deepest layer of thinking becomes available to fewer and fewer people, until it is a small minority interest, like opera, or volleyball?”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.