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Whatever Happened to Reading?

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I’ve been thinking lately about the pervasive decline in reading, a phenomenon I noticed as a college prof over many years of teaching, and which now seems to have become even more prevalent. These reflections were spurred by two films which I’ve recently re-watched, the rather gruesome three-part Hannibal series starring the inimitable Anthony Hopkins, and the ever-delightful six-episode Oliver’s Travels featuring a charming performance from Alan Bates.*

What struck me about the Hannibal trilogy was the surname Lecter, a homonym for the word “lector” from the Latin for “reader,” and which gives us the common word “lecture.” Hannibal the Cannibal is a reader of sorts, a rather voracious one. A forensic psychotherapist by profession, he is deeply educated, can lecture on Renaissance art and history and recite Dante in the original, loves and understands music, knows precisely how to detect life histories from a modicum of cues—and devours people as if they were texts, relishing choice passages.

Oliver, for his part, is an inveterate wordsmith, an anagram maestro, a crossword buff, an incorrigible punster and an excellent scholar who has been “rendered redundant” as a lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of the Rhondda Valley in Wales, which has revised its curriculum to reflect “market strategy.” What is now important is “accessing information,” whereas “history,” as Oliver quips, “has become a thing of the past.” The university has become a vast computer lab and erudition is now regarded as quaint and obsolete. There is no place any longer for a playful and richly-stocked mind like Oliver’s. One surveys printouts rather than reads Aristotle.

I was intrigued by these productions in part because each in its different way had something to do with the problem of reading, of “ingesting” knowledge, of “devouring” a complex world as if it were a book, of scholarship in a world dedicated to markets, mere information processing and the devaluation of wit (both Hannibal and Oliver evince a lively capacity for witty utterance). It is a world obsessed with droids rather than people, with mediocrity rather than meritocracy, with surfaces rather than depths, and with artificial intelligence rather than real intelligence. The director of the Hannibal films, Ridley Scott, dealt with the concept of artificial intelligence in Blade Runner, whose replicant anti-hero assumes a human quality only at the end with his “tears in the rain” speech. It is no accident that a leading software system is called “Android.” Novelist Alan Plater’s and director Giles Foster’s Oliver’s Travels gestures toward the great satirist Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and to the comic Restoration dramatist George Farquhar, who figures waggishly in the plot.

Reading code, computer printouts, operation manuals, milk cartons, instant messaging, emails, instruction sheets, promotional material, condo by-laws, Twitter and Facebook, online posts, political blogs and the like is not what is meant by reading in any significant sense. There is no inwardness, no temporality, no reflectiveness. Indeed, Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains is not so sure that reading has much of a future in the modern West. He cites the Nielsen Company’s media-use survey revealing that American teens and adults spend “half their waking hours looking at screens [while] daily reading drops to less than three quarters of an hour a week.” The effect on the nervous system is profound: “attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial and memory suffers.” The Net—the ubiquitous screen—provides fast food for the brain rather than solid nourishment, with the consequence that cognitive vigor is degrading as we speak. People tend to read little and comprehend less.

Articles on the Net, for example, tend to come adorned with a time trigger: 2 minute read, 4 minute read, 6 minute read. Longer reads tax our patience and mean fewer clicks to boot. Given that we no longer live in a reading culture, but a scanning-and-video culture, the prospects for deep understanding, intellectual substance and introspective awareness grow increasingly ephemeral. Carr titles his book, aptly, The Shallows. It can no longer be denied that we live in a surfing culture, not a thinking culture. 

Many neuropsychologists have shown through experiments and surveys that the 21st century brain is re-mapping itself, closing older neural pathways and opening new ones that favor a different way of experiencing both self and world. Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention, Richard Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence, Joseph LeDoux’s Synaptic Self and Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired, among a plethora of texts on the subject, provide in-depth analyses of how the brain reprograms itself as it responds to events, people, objects, intellectual disciplines and new technologies. In the long run, this mutation, a function of neuroplasticity, does not necessarily or always lead to a richer, more reflective, self-aware, and insightful symbiosis of self and world.  

That requires more than cognitive exercises, computer training, so-called “smart drugs” (or nootropics) that influence the role of neurotransmitters, electroceuticals as a cognitive enhancement tool to boost mental function, and other brain stimulation strategies. None of these recommended techniques can serve to redress a cultural trend that may plausibly amount to a species change, a reconfiguration of the brain’s neural networks eventuating in successive generations proficient at skimming and scanning but unable to think laterally, to reason cogently, to conduct logically sound arguments, to use language efficiently, and to experience what we might call “historical resonance”—in short, to develop the faculty of “inwardness,” now an unfashionable term. 

This is where reading comes in. Reading is the key to the shaping and revitalization of the mind, fostering the exercise of memory and imaginative empathy. In a celebrated essay titled On Reading, Marcel Proust reminds us that “Reading is at the threshold of our inner life…What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.” Similarly, Susan Sontag writes in Where the Stress Falls, “Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Books…are a way of being fully human.” Regrettably, she adds, “books are now considered an endangered species.” Abandoning the Great Library “means nothing less than the death of inwardness.”

This is where we are now. Is there anyone at university today who can read, let alone teach, Henry James’ The Bostonians? Or, even more unlikely, The Golden Bowl? Who among the student population, not to mention the professoriate, has the intellectual ability to appreciate the complex thought and finetooth style of a James novel? Are these books even taught today? What about Henry Adams, both the Education and the Chartres? What American teacher, student or layperson reads that great American, who is also the author of a major multi-volume history of a significant American era and of a penetrating novel on the pitfalls of political democracy—an early herald of Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy? Who has the time for Dickens’ Bleak House with its mordant evisceration of chancery law or his caustic yet amusing satire of America, Martin Chuzzlewit? Who has the patience for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a profound allegory of Europe sinking into its pre-1914 sickness? Who is willing to learn from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a primer on the importance of reason and modesty, or  Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, a harbinger of contemporary wokeism? Who would bother cracking the spine of Plato’s Republic or Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy or Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World or George Gamow’s One Two Three…Infinity (an early favorite of mine) or Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity? One could go on, but these questions are sadly rhetorical. All such books, after all, are probably 1-week reads. The Greek tragedians, the Bible, and the complete works of Shakespeare are more like 1-year reads.

How, then, asks Maggie Jackson in Distracted, can we “turn data into knowledge”—a pet maxim of Oliver’s—”an epidemic distraction into exquisitely engaged minds,” to somehow “sharpen our powers of focus,” to learn how to attend to the world and recover “the building blocks of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress?” “We are on the cusp of an astonishing time,” she concludes, “and on the edge of darkness. We can create a culture of attention, recover the ability to pause, focus, connect, judge, and enter deeply into a relationship or an idea, or we can slip into numb days of easy diffusion and detachment.”

Along the same lines, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen in The Distracted Mind propose the ecological concept of optimal foraging theory, maximizing consumption per unit of time against the constraints of the environment. One such environmental constraint is the overly promiscuous Internet where consumption of “value” is paradoxically constrained by vagrant, non-nutritive foraging. Reading, on the other hand, is “nutritive,” essential to stimulating a facility, even a minimal competence, with language, the medium not only of communication but of thought itself. Reading is indispensable for the broadening of the mind and to establish communion, affinity, and rapport with other minds, in other words, empathy with those who are present and those who have gone before us.

“Reading at the deepest levels,” writes Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home, “may provide a part of the antidote to the noted trend away from empathy.” Indeed, empathetic reading is “about a more in-depth understanding of the Other, an essential skill in a world of increasing connectedness among divergent cultures.” Reading, which promotes a perspectival opening of the mind, “represents a complex mix of cognitive, social and emotional processes that leave ample tracks in our reading-brain circuitry.” This complex is what remains tragically undeveloped in our digital culture.

“Our transition to a digital culture,” writes C2C Journal associate editor Patrick Keeney, “has…rendered the paper book redundant, as hopelessly out-of-date as cassette recordings, video stores or rotary phones.” Real assimilative reading has fallen on evil days, comparable in popular estimation to something primeval like Hannibal’s indiscriminate appetite or dismissively whimsical like Oliver’s preoccupations. We might note, however, that books figure in both films, prominently the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in The Silence of the Lambs and the Ecclesiastical History by the Venerable Bede in Oliver. Whether the brain can be newly reprogrammed to foster a neural hospitality to reading, study, patience, and mindfulness is the question of the era. How would the reprogramming be done? Will cortical resources be allocated, writes Joseph LeDoux in Synaptic Self, “to processing the new event,” in this case, an “executive shift of attention” to books and reading? Will we pick up Marcus Aurelius and the Venerable Bede?  

In the light of German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous remark, “We are what we eat,” we would do well to remember essayist Joseph Epstein’s obiter dicta: “In a sense, we are what we read.” He might have added: We are also what we do not read.

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* I am not concerned here with Alan Plater’s novel or the Hannibal novel sequence by Thomas Harris or the NBC Hannibal drama series. Plater is an excellent novelist; his Beiderbecke Trilogy is a most enjoyable read and serves as a kind of prelude to Oliver’s adventures. I can’t comment on Harris’ published sequence, having read only one volume in the boxed collection, and have viewed only a few episodes on the NBC series, though enough to note Hannibal’s rather impressive library.

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