A depressing set of figures came to my attention the other day from the 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report, a survey of 1,045 American households that was conducted by the Harrison Group for Scholastic Inc., the publisher of the Harry Potter series. According to the survey, 25 percent of children between the ages of 9 and 17 say that texting with their friends counts as “reading.” I am a writer and editor who works in book publishing, and physical books have been a large part of my life for at least 25 years. So that bit of information could not look worse to my print-loving eyes. Just when print publishers (including the magazine and newspaper industries) are hanging on to the physical book by a thread, we hear that young people think texting equals reading. This isn’t about preferring to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel on your iPhone or iPad. This is about doing away with reading altogether.
When you think of the allure of reading, does your mind immediately return to the marvelous experiences you have had with books, and to the ideas, characters, places and situations you have experienced through reading? Mine, too. Sometimes I feel the need to raid the baggy jean pockets of teenagers everywhere, steal their cellphones and organize phone-burnings for the sake of God and country. But in truth, my first stumbling response to this factoid was to post it on my Facebook page.
I realize this is more than a little self-contradictory—using social media to express dismay over the popularity of social media. But on my Facebook post I imagined how the world of literature and letters would be different if some of the writers from whom I have learned so much had texted and tweeted rather than written, read and talked to one another. I imagined this text message from Thomas Merton to Denise Levertov: “Luv yr new bk hun! :)”
The Collected Postings?
Since I have recently read collections of letters by Graham Greene and Ted Hughes, I have also begun to imagine a future in which books of letters are no longer published. Will there be collections of e-mail messages, Facebook postings and tweets? I can imagine what a sample might look like, even if written by a great novelist or poet. The editor of such a volume might identify the source and date of the communication of each entry, “Sent from the author’s TweetDeck on Dec. 3, 2009, at 1:20 a.m.” Then the tweet: “Endless revisions these days on my Jesus book. My editor is making me crazy!” You can’t say much in 140 characters or fewer.
That is part of the problem. As reading is redefined to be less and less, shorter and shorter, ideas must necessarily become smaller too. Who has the time or energy to reflect as people once did? But new media is only making it harder by creating such easy and interesting entertainments.
Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th-century churchman, spoke of the value of “reading toward wisdom.” I suspect that most if not all of the readers of America still do quite a lot of that. But it is becoming more difficult, isn’t it? The philosopher and priest Ivan Illich wrote nearly 20 years ago, “The screen, the medium, and ‘communication’ have surreptitiously replaced the page, letters, and reading” (see In the Vineyard of the Text). Illich knew where things were headed.
Some of us read more than others, but what concerns me most is who is reading most. Among them would be, for example, the most fundamentalist of religionists—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—who still read in the old style. In the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Brooklyn and Israel there are men who read all day. In Israel, these scholars are paid by the Israeli government to study rather than enter the work force. They dedicate their lives to Chochmah, Binah, Da’at—Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge. Similarly, a fundamentalist Muslim is invariably a man who studies ancient texts, interpretations, ideas and knowledge for many hours every day. He carries books with him when he travels. And the fundamentalist Christian, likewise, knows her catechism, canons, Bible, commentaries, languages and ideas better than most of her more progressive peers.
The written word has moved from pages to pixels. That is value neutral. Take another look at the figures from the 2010 study: 25 percent of young people call texting “reading.” Forty years ago, 25 percent of young people between the ages of 9 and 17 surely thought, as I did, that staring at a cereal box in the morning while chewing breakfast counted as “reading.” The fact is, whether 40 years ago or last year, more than half of American households do not buy a single book in a year. That is the way it has long been. Now households are not buying a single e-book, either. One could say there is just as much hope for the future now as a generation ago.
A Reading Migration
In what are called newly enhanced books, you can click on video, audio and other bits of content as you read. That is value neutral, too. But an inevitable result of all of this creativity is a corresponding lack of concentration. It is harder to focus on any one thing. That too might be value neutral, except that those of us on the religious left, in an embrace of the world, might allow new technologies to steer us further and further away from the sort of reading that results in wisdom and knowledge.
The problem is less that a portion of the population does not read books or thinks that texting is akin to reading Illich and Adichie. Rather, the problem is that those who read are being lured by gadgetry to read less and less. Social media divide our attention or, more precisely, cater to our already-divided attention.
Like millions of others, I have written at a computer keyboard since college. Already, behavioral scientists are examining whether brains like mine have changed as a result of moving from pen and pencil to typewriter to electronic keyboard. I “think” with my fingers now, when I used to think while writing in longhand. Split-second moments of improvisation are nearly impossible for me with a pen now. In my hand, a pen plods. Pens settle into ink. But the fingers that generate pixels can quickly move, think, correct and communicate.
As we stopped expressing our knowledge of God, self and the world with pen on paper, we lost something in the transition, including the skills of memory and study that characterized previous generations. What we have gained in gathering and synthesizing information is often a matter of appearances only—as those who consult Wikipedia for the facts for which one used to scour libraries will attest. Our ability to present findings and narrative quickly has increased astronomically. Perhaps that is knowledge, but it is not wisdom.
What will we lose in the next transition? As we tweet and hyperlink, will we sustain the focused concentration required for real discovery?
Half of the young people surveyed who said texting was the same thing as reading also said that they “read books in order to help figure out who I am and who I can become.” Let’s hope that there is still time.