Steven Johnson on reading

Steven Johnson — whose work in general I like very much, especially Emergence and Mind Wide Open — has written a really annoying essay in the Guardian in response to the recent NEA report on reading in America. (That sentence got enough links for ya?)

Johnson’s essay was almost bound to be annoying because he’s got a such a prominent dog in this fight, his 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good For You, which addresses all earlier concerns about how various electronic media are ruining the minds of our youth by dismissing them. I exaggerate, but not much. Look, Johnson is absolutely right that a lot of silly hand-wringing goes on (as it has always gone on) about the moral, spiritual, social, and/or intellectual malaise of “young people today”; and he helpfully shows that when we do have significant and reliable data about these matters — which is not often — that data doesn’t usually support the hand-wringing.

But he’s also a little too skillful at changing subjects when the data creates discomfort for his favorite theses and claims. And that’s what makes this particular essay annoying. I’m tempted to fisk the whole thing, but I think I can get at what bothers me by quoting the last two paragraphs:

. . . thus far, when you look at the demographic patterns of the Google generation, there is not only no cause for alarm: in fact, there's genuine cause for celebration. The twentysomethings in the US - the ones who spent their childhood years engaged with computers and not zoning out in front of the TV - are the least violent, the most politically engaged and the most entrepreneurial since the dawn of the television era.

But if you listen to the NEA, we are perched on the edge of a general meltdown: "The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem." A serious national problem with no apparent data to support it. Perhaps the scholars at the NEA should put down their novels and take some statistics classes?

Well, actually, there’s a good bit of data that Johnson simply ignores. I haven’t had time yet to look deeply enough to find whether it’s good data, but the current NEA study and others claim that long-form literary reading in particular (e.g., of novels, works of history, biographies) is correlated with various goods, including “volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.” I don’t understand the correlation, but Johnson should probably at least mention the finding. Or maybe he thinks it insignificant: Hey, many members of the “Google generation” may be fat, unhealthy, isolated, and indifferent to local needs, but they comment a lot on the Daily Kos and they make buckets of money!

I’m not sure whether I’m kidding or not. Elsewhere in the essay Johnson writes, “I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000?” This is just crass. Does Johnson really think that income is the only significant indicator of quality of life? If not, it would be helpful if he mentioned some other values.

The closest he comes to acknowledging that this issue may be complex is when he writes, “Yes, we are reading in smaller bites on the screen, often switching back and forth between applications as we do it” — In other words, yes, long-form reading is on the decline. Johnson quickly moves on to say that “There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media,” which is true, as far as I know — but are there studies (serious studies, I mean, not hand-wringing editorials) suggesting potential problems arising from small-bite app-switching reading? Odd that Johnson doesn’t even ask the question, since presumably he’s aware of the research that Walter Kirn discussed in his recent essay on multitasking and its discontents.

What does it to do our brains to engage in long periods of reading a single text, to try to keep in mind the arc of a narrative that runs hundreds of pages? What kind of neurological work do we do as we strive to keep track of the details that add up to such a large story? Do people who are habituated to such a discipline experience benefits elsewhere in their lives? Are there other kinds of things that they can better concentrate on, like long quiet movies, or symphonies, or extended jazz improvisations? If you read long, complex stories about ordinary human lives, do you become more attentive and sympathetic to the lives of people you meet? (Or, maybe, less so?) If you don’t do this kind of long-form reading, do you miss out on any useful intellectual, or moral, development?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, though I sure wish I did. But Steven Johnson’s essay doesn’t move me one inch closer to such answers. This is what happens when a newspaper asks someone to evaluate work that he or she has an explicit and long-standing interest in refuting. I suspect that the NEA report has some significant problems, and that it’s based on a somewhat romanticized notion of the Good Old Days of reading, but Steven Johnson’s not the guy I would turn to to get the straight dope on the matter.