bad reading

Among our cultural critics there is now, and will continue to be for many years, much anxiety about the reading habits of the American public. (See this recent New Yorker essay by Caleb Crain for the worries and the research that supports them.) The primary concern is that we’re not reading enough books, which is certainly a legitimate issue — at least for people like me who write books and would like people to read them. (Or at least buy them.) What no one seems to understanding clearly is how much more or less reading in general people are doing now, as compared to, say, twenty years ago. The internet is of course the puzzle: for all the Flickr photos and YouTube videos and iTunes tracks out there, there are also one hell of a lot of words, and a hell of a lot of people reading them.

Or at least kind of reading them. I don’t think that the internet makes reading skills worse — in fact, as Crain reports, there are studies indicating a positive correlation between internet use and academic performance — but I think the internet does help us to understand just how poorly many people read. The key, I think, is that when we’re surfing the web we are in such close proximity to the tools of writing.

Think about it: when you’re reading a book or magazine and you want to comment on it, you have to find a pen or pencil, grip the book awkwardly, and scribble something in the margin, or on the inside of the cover, that you probably won’t be able to read later anyway. Or you have to set the book or magazine down and find yourself something to write on. Often this proves to be too much trouble, and your comment goes unmade, or put off until later, when second thoughts may well kick in. But when you’re reading something online, the opportunity to respond to it is quite literally at your fingertips. And if you do that, people can learn something about how well, or how carelessly, you read.

I can only speak personally and anecdotally here, but it’s continually surprising to me how often people commenting on online articles or blog posts respond to something the author never said — in some cases never even came close to saying. People gather an impression from their reading, and then formulate a response based on that impression — but how often do they pause to test that impression, to re-read to discover whether the impression was right? (Also, how often do commenters who have been corrected on their false impressions come back and acknowledge that they were wrong?)

Some people will of course say that the internet is to blame for these bad habits, but as a teacher of literature who has been giving reading quizzes to students — and by all standard measures exceptionally good students — since Reihan was in diapers, I doubt that. People have trouble reading carefully even when they have multiples incentives to read carefully. I think the internet reveals people’s reading habits, and if someone wants to get beyond simple complaints about poor reading and truly to understand the particular ways in which readers go astray, there is an enormous wealth of information out there just waiting for someone to collect, collate, and interpret it.