A recent article in the Washington Post featured the recent research of a cognitive neuroscientist which suggests that the current superficial ways in which we read - largely via electronic media such as the internet, email, e-readers, news scrollers on the television - is actually changing the way our brains process reading. And not in a good way.
In fact, claims Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University neuroscientist and author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” it might well be that our brains are actually forgetting how to read and comprehend in the traditional, linear manner. As evidence, the article offers a plethora of personal anecdotes from various researchers and university professors who claim that the Internet is churning out new generations of students unable to read classic literature.
At first glance, what Wolf and other researchers were suggesting made sense. We are a society dominated by sound bites. We skim for what we need in an overwhelming sea of information. We read just enough to get what we need and then click on the link that takes us where we need to go, then skim some more. In a world where evolution is the name of the game, I could almost buy the premise that our reading brain would adapt to this change. Almost. Not quite.
You see, I am a part of that unique generation that straddled the advent of the Internet. My primary education and early university years were largely Internet-free. Our brains, if you will, were as yet untainted by bits and bytes. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that neither I, nor the vast majority of my freshman American Lit class, could intelligently pick out a single theme of Melville’s Moby Dick. Sorry, professor. Sometimes a whale is just a whale. Get over it.
Back in the early 1990s, of course, the Internet wasn't ubiquitous enough to blame for a student’s inability to read and regurgitate Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James. Most professors simply blamed Harry Potter. Blaming outside culture, I've found, has always been easier than facing the obvious answer: very few of our students were ever taught how to properly read and analyze literature. No one ever bothered.
If we were very lucky this inability to properly read and analyze literature didn't deter us from a love of books. This is an amazing thing when you think about it. To find wisdom, escape, life lessons, and comfort within the pages of a book despite not knowing how to properly analyze and digest what we are reading. This is visceral. This the human thirst for knowledge, understanding, and connection at it’s most basic level. And it is beautiful.
We now live in the age of the Internet. Fast news, short articles, links to any information your curiosity desires await your typing fingers. I, for one, am not afraid to proclaim that this Age of the Internet has in no way proven detrimental to our ability to read and comprehend books. If anything, it has improved it. Quick knowledge is at our fingertips, just a Google search away. Did your English professor fail to teach you different ways to analyze literature? A quick internet search turns up dozens of tutorials highlighting dozens of methods. Pick the one you like best. If you feel particularly slighted by a sub-par education you can even enroll in an Ivy League literature class online. For free. Those who desire something less structured can find thousands of online book clubs that provide opportunities to read and discuss classic literature. There is, as the saying goes, a butt for every saddle.
If history is any indication, technological advances have always been a dire threat to books. It’s been nearly 80 years since Abbott and Costello over the airwaves posed an obvious threat to Middlemarch and The Scarlet Letter. When radio failed to destroy books, the television was brought to bear and millions of young minds were forcibly turned away from King Lear and Great Expectations by Ed Sullivan parading the gyrating hips of Elvis for all to see. The clear evil we face today, if we are to believe the red flag wavers, is the Internet and all its insidious by-products, including email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and probably even NPR online. And don’t forget the slow removal of your brain’s ability to read a book. War and Peace may never be read again.