Thursday, 9 January 2014

The end of reading? Part 1

The other day I picked up E.B. White's collection of essays The second tree from the corner and read his essay entitled The future of reading which he penned in 1951. He states, "In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading - whether the printed word is on its last legs." He then puts forward the idea of the Last Reader, someone who continues reading in spite of the competition from new media. E.B. White wonders whether this Last Reader will become for society what the queen bee is to a hive, however comes to the conclusion that, "it is more likely that our modern hive of bees... will try to perpetuate the race through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlour."

Some time after that, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr found its way into my hands and piqued my interest because it not only proved to be strangely prophetic in terms of E.B.White's predictions about the place of reading in the modern world, but also because it confirmed an uneasy, niggling feeling I've had about our enthusiastic and (sometimes) reckless embrace of all things online.

Carr makes a compelling argument for how our brains change physiologically with use and that the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember and that this change is one that takes us from the depth of solitary reading to the shallows of distraction offered to us by the internet. Alarmist argument or fair warning? While I may write a blog, own a tablet and spend a fair amount of time online, I tend towards recognising this book as a fair warning. Reading is an issue that is close to my heart and I believe books to be fundamental in shaping our thinking and as a result, Carr's argument had my undivided attention from beginning to end. For this reason, I also felt that it deserved some space on this blog. I've divided my response to this book into two parts, firstly, the book as medium and secondly, the effects changes in reading habits have on us.

Carr begins by arguing that reading a page is different from reading a screen in that it lacks a certain tactile element to it. He writes, "The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it." One of the distinguishing features is that online reading makes use of hyperlinks. These hyperlinks don't just direct the reader to related works, but also offer a distraction from the main text, directing our attention away from it. Anyone who has suddenly found a whole evening gone as a result of the exploratory clicking of hyperlinks and the subsequent journey through the internet's rabbit-warren of interconnected texts will understand this.

The way that information is presented on the net is designed towards fragmentation rather than the engagement with the whole. Carr states, "A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we're searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole. We don't see the forest when we search the Web. We don't even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves." As a result, we don't engage with information in the same way we do with a book which follows a strongly linear fashion. Information on the net is synthesised, summarised, shortened, snipped, presented in graphics and generally made into more easily digestible, bite-sized bits. This, Carr argues, is having a profound impact on the way we think.

The Shallows is more than just a book about competing media (the printed word vs. online texts); it makes the argument that as we use technologies, these technologies actually change us. As a result, Carr remains firm that eBooks and printed books are not the same thing at all. Introducing connectivity and hyperlinks to eBooks fundamentally changes the book as a medium and how we experience it. The experience is ultimately diluted by a process of fragmentation. He quotes author, Stephen Johnson, to explain how this affects us as readers, "I fear that one of the great joys of book reading - the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas - will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there."

Since the rise of E.B. White's "audio-visual days" in the 50s and 60s, the internet has come along and surpassed these technologies, but his questions about the future of reading remain as relevant as ever. Are we now in the days of the Last Reader? Of course, the usefulness of the internet can't be denied; it is a tool that we can can use as we like and can even be viewed as an accessory to reading and writing. However, as tempting as it may seem, reading a printed book just can't be replaced.

Part 2 to follow soon!

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