Words by Charlotte Guest, Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing

Register for UWA Publishing's WINTERarts event, On Reading: How our reading habits might change the way we think.

Socrates bemoaned the advent of writing over oratory for what he saw as its negative impact upon memory: if all knowledge is documented there would be no need to retain it in our minds and our souls. Now, in the twenty-first century, we fear the impact of typing and electronic texts upon memory and learning, majority opinion being that we process information more thoroughly if we hand write notes as opposed to typing them. Considering this parallel, are we simply resistant to change and to the emergence of new ways of interacting with the written word? Is it naive of us to try and thwart the evolution of language and language practices? We must remember that when the novel was first developed it was considered a bastardised literary form that was born from and catered for bored women. The novel, and indeed English literature in the vernacular, posed an affront to classics. There are precedents to what we are experiencing now; crises have been overcome and new modes of expression adopted. But what is happening to reading as we know it?

The question about reading no longer asks whether we will continue to read, but, rather, how we will read. In fact, the entrepreneurial zeitgeist fuels our unquenchable thirst for information; we feel compelled to wring efficiency out of every spare moment, scouring news feeds at the bus stop, in the bathroom, at the cafe whilst waiting for our coffee that we pre-ordered via text. It is possible to make the argument that we are reading more, desirous to absorb content at an ever accelerating rate. But what kinds of reading are we practising? Is there a cognitive distinction between deep reading and skimming? If we are consuming words like fast food, replacing quality for quantity, what impact might this have upon our brains? What, perhaps even more importantly, do these practices reveal about our attitude towards reading as a method for learning?

Let me offer a reading of the situation: there is a pervading sense of anxiety underlying the contemporary attitude to reading. It is not that reading has been devalued, in fact it seems quite the opposite: much of the digital media we engage with hinges on written language, there is still a hunger for discovery inscribed in the language of reading, the rationale for why we read. We read to learn, discover, engage, connect, inquire and acquire. What is being de-emphasised in mainstream Western culture are the other reasons to read, such as for relaxation, to reflect, soothe oneself, heal, to create, to philosophise. These are reading practices where the process undertaken by the reader is not simply one of consumption, but also of production. The reader infuses the text with something additional, such as an interpretation, a sense of understanding, and not simply of the book but of the world. This immersive reading experience is what appears endangered in contemporary culture, not reading itself. Deep reading takes time; it is slow by necessity. It require the reader, in the paraphrased words of C. S. Lewis, to read the same passage over and over in order to reach a fuller understanding. Further, the endangering of deep reading appears due to an underlying social anxiety about keeping abreast of the goings on.

Anxiety propels one forward; it makes the heart race and mind whirl. It demands action. We have begun to preference recognition over reflection due to the desire to prove we are socially engaged. There is a need to be always plugged in to what is trending; we feel a sinking feeling when we learn something by word-of-mouth as opposed to having already seen it online. And in order to keep abreast of so many goings on, we must work quickly, nimbly, we must be able to glean meaning from 140 characters or less. There is no time to sink down into subtext, only time to skim the literal. This is why poetry, whilst often more bite-sized than prose, doesn’t populate our twitter feeds.

We may speculate endlessly on the future of reading; these are but a few preliminary remarks. UWA Publishing will be hosting an panel discussion on this topic, entitled On Reading: how our reading habits might change the way we think. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets

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  • Nice post, Charlotte! Alas, anxiety is the default position in a modern newsroom. For which the antidote is often the quiet contemplation of the NON-verbal: a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music… Only then do words come fluttering back, unbidden.

    Will Yeoman on

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