Six in 10 Americans say they don’t read full articles, only headlines. This is a big change from how most people have read through time. In a terrific book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer tells the story of how he accidentally became the competitive memory champion of the United States. For most of human history people had little or no access to written words, so they relied on their memory to keep important ideas. Even after the invention of the printing press, for a long time, say in colonial America, even upper middle-class people owned only a few books, usually the Bible among them and a few classic works. Books were treasures and their owners read them deeply and repeatedly.
Today books, blogs and newspapers are commodities. We read them once and quickly, often not investing time to question them or read them discerningly. This is not a consequence-less choice. A number of studies are showing that the way we consume media actually changes the chemistry of our brains. More and more we consume information in bits rather than books, in sporadic, frantic skims rather than in long, deliberate reads. It is making us shallower, more distracted, and more anxious. The way we read has profound influences on the way we think and on the type of public discourse we can have as a culture. Below I offer a few wonderful articles on reading deeply and at length — why it is so beneficial and why today we find it so hard to do.
Skimming off the top
It was the best informed of times. It was the worst-informed of times. So might Dickens have begun a reflection on the state of information and wisdom today. Never have a people consumed so much content. But what good is the content we consume?
Nikkitha Bakshani’s “Binge Reading Disorder” in The Morning News is a nice piece on this. According to Bakshani, Americans come across 100,500 words a day via email, texts, ads, and the rest of their experience. Social media is a huge driver of this. “Data collected by the marketing company Likehack tells us that the average social media user “reads” — or perhaps just clicks on — 285 pieces of content daily, an estimated 54,000 words. If it is true, then we are reading a novel slightly longer than The Great Gatsby every day.”
But we’re not reading The Great Gatsby every day. We are reading news (or what qualifies as news today). And there is a big difference there. Bakshani captures the difference in a reflection she has about reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, “ It strikes me as odd that I could remember a passage from a book I had read eight years ago, but not the argument a writer made about ISIS in an article I read last week.” Her description isn’t a foreign feeling to me. But why? We have come to value knowing a little about a lot instead of a a lot about a little. As Nicholas Carr put it in his famous essay:
My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
— Nicholas Carr “Is Google Making Us Stupid” in The Atlantic
It’s not just that we have exchanged books, for news. Many of us are exchanging news for headlines or for tweets about news. In 2014, NPR ran an April Fools prank where they posted an story on the NPR Facebook site headlined, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” The “article” itself only said, “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’” You can guess what happened. Scores of “readers” commented on the story, protesting that people still DO read or that they themselves read because they came from a family of readers. It was a great test to run, with a predictable and discouraging result.
What’s going on? Karl Taro Greenfeld had a brilliant piece in The New York Times, “Faking Cultural Literacy.” It’s funny and bracing and at times convicting. Greenfeld suggests that in our knowledge economy, being “in the know” is the supreme currency. If you are out of the loop, you’re socially bankrupt.
Does anyone anywhere ever admit that he or she is completely lost in the conversation? No. We nod and say, ‘I’ve heard the name,’ or ‘It sounds very familiar,’ which usually means we are totally unfamiliar with the subject at hand.
Because so much that we could know, we feel a pressure about what we should know. Of course there is too much to know, too much to read, too much to watch. As I see it, we have three choices about how to deal with the overwhelming tide of digital information: Limit, Binge, or Pretend.
The first choice is to limit our intake. Abandon the project of being a know it all and take up a more realistic goal of really know a little. This is called curation. You can do it yourself or you can find others you come to trust to help you do it — to filter the wheat from the chaff, the important from the unimportant, the worth-knowing, from the digital garbage. This is what I’m trying to do in my weekly readers.
The second choice is Binge — try to read it all. If you could only learn to read a little faster, if you could just maximize how quickly you get through your emails and how you spend your time on the train, maybe you could keep up.
Or maybe you can’t. Which defaults you into the third option: Pretend. Maybe you don’t actually have to know anything as long as you are generally aware of things. This is the point Greenfeld drives home so well in his piece. I’ll quote it at length here, but it really is worth reading the whole thing.
It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them…What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.
Why The News Makes us Dumb
Even if you could keep up with all the news, it probably isn’t going to benefit you in the way you were hoping. Consider the prospect of reading throug a stack of newspapers from a few years ago. It’s not like experience of rereading The Great Gatsby. As John Sommerville points out, “We might find the novel more impressive the second time around. We are impressed again with the author’s insight, not dismayed by an editor’s shallowness.”
Sommerville is Professor of History at the University of Florida and a senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. He is also an author of a book called How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society. He wrote a long article on the same topic for First Things and I can’t recommend it enough.
Books are long, so they have the luxury of exploring ideas and making arguments. Not so for the News, says Sommerville:
There can be no real thinking in News reports because explaining takes time (i.e., space). So News is made up of statements rather than arguments, which has a serious effect on our minds. When News constitutes almost all of our reading, we fall into the habit of thinking that opinions are the same as thoughts. The News alludes to a debate but only shows us a clash of opinions. As a result, we forget how to carry on a debate, and fall back on polls.
News is focused not on truth, but on change. It is in the economic interest of news organizations to have their audiences believe that change is happening now and is important. What is changing is not the opposite of truth, but it is often only part of the truth, and the greater context, which might make the change being reported on seem less important, is often sacrificed so that the change of the moment can be emphasized. Without reflection, we probably assume define the news as “what’s important.” But much of what is in the news isn’t all that important and won’t seem that important with the passage at time. He offers a different definition of news to ground how we think about it:
News is what has happened since yesterday’s paper or broadcast. It is that daily budget of information that a person needs in order to be “informed,” to feel tuned in to the world. It is also a product, and the truth of the News product is not a characteristic essential to it. Certainly truth is secondary to sales performance. And the fact that information is marketed in this way, that is, as News, affects the way we think about everything — politics, government, science, religion, values, culture.
This dynamic has some profound implications for us as we choose where to invest our attention. Interestingly, Sommerville looks at religion as one of topics that doesn’t match the basic news dynamic:
News and religion, then, are likely to be antagonists. For as we have seen, News only recognizes change, whereas religion tries to concentrate on eternal questions. This opposition, by the way, is one that non-Western religions insist upon even more than the Judeo-Christian tradition does. The idea that for every 24-hour period there is an hour’s worth of reports requiring our attention would be considered a sign of being spiritually lost in any of the world’s religions.
Why Can’t We Read Anymore?
Why can’t we read anymore? Hugh McGuire asks in another post on Medium. His essay captures the aching addiction to standing in the digital stream.
“Spending time with friends, or family, I often feel a soul-deep throb coming from that perfectly engineered wafer of stainless steel and glass and rare earth metals in my pocket. Touch me. Look at me. You might find something marvellous.” [sic]
What is that device so enticing? Why can’t we put it away? Why, in the words of one writer, do we compulsively check our email as if we’re expecting a personal message from the President? McGuire offers a clue:
New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.
Even though many of us think of email as “work,” fMRIs show our brain’s lighting up with pleasure when we receive new emails. We get addicted to that rush. It is irresistable.
There is a famous study of rats, wired up with electrodes on their brains. When the rats press a lever, a little charge gets released in part of their brain that stimulates dopamine release. A pleasure lever.
Given a choice between food and dopamine, they’ll take the dopamine, often up to the point of exhaustion and starvation. They’ll take the dopamine over sex. Some studies see the rats pressing the dopamine lever 700 times in an hour.
We do the same things with our email. Refresh. Refresh.
McGuire says he’s had enough. He has quit social media and quit reading random articles and only read books. Whether he’ll stay quit is the question. He would do well to check out Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. My old boss introduced me to this book. Duhigg is a New York Times reporter who studied the science of how habits are formed.
It turns out all habits contain three pieces: a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is a trigger for your brain to go into automatic model. The routine can be physical or mental process you engage in following the cue. The reward is what helps your brain decide that this routine is a good response to the cue. For many of us having a spare moment at your desk or waiting in line is all the cue we need to respond with the routine of checking email or social media feeds. The reward is the dopamine rush we get from the new information.
According to Duhigg, the rule with bad habits is that you can’t just stop them. You need to identify the cues and replace the routine in a way that still gets you the same (or better) reward. You need to train your brain to look forward to that new reward so eventually you begin to do the routine on autopilot. Maybe you need to begin carrying a book with you to work. Maybe download a book to your phone so it is just as convenient to look at as your email would be. Or maybe it’s time to seek professional reading help. On to the last article.
Somebody call a doctor…or a bibliotherapist
Can Reading Make You Happier? asks Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker. In her case, and in the case of many, it might. Reading not only makes you better informed; it makes you more empathetic, more calm, and feel more rested.
A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings…even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
It’s pretty clear that we should read, but it isn’t always as clear what we should read. There are three-hundred thousand books published every year. Which few should we spend our time on? A friend of a friend claims to read between 50–100 books a year and sends a list out each year of his 10 favorites. I know people who scoff at this idea. Does he have time to work? Does he just ignore his kids? But I just appreciate getting the recommendation of someone who reads more than me. And that is the premise behind bibliotherapy — reading recommendations from a therapist.
“The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets…”
Visit a bibliotherapist and you will likely fill out a questionnaire about what is on your mind and what is bothering you. Based on your answers the therapist will recommend a course of reading for you. As therapy goes, I must say I find this more appealing than some other options. Whether it works, I have no clue. But today I leave you with these five recommendations for long articles worth reading. May they make you feel less-stressed, more confident, and better read.