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The Deep Space of Digital Reading

24 April 2017

From Nautilus:

In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

. . . .

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.

. . . .

The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.

Link to the rest at Nautilus and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Books in General

22 Comments to “The Deep Space of Digital Reading”

  1. Sheesh, Nicholas Carr. Does the man ever go outdoors without an umbrella to protect him from the falling digital skies? Every time I see his name mentioned, it’s in connection with some alarmist digital luddite piece in which he’s worried that the Internet is affecting our attention spans and/or brain development.

  2. The “silent reading” myth needs to die in a fire. Over the entire worldwide history of literacy we don’t have many descriptions of the process of reading, so some scholars of European literature find the one description of one man reading without moving his lips and go bugnutz in a revolution in human consciousness. We have many mentions of reading aloud as teaching and as a form of entertainment, but the absence of descriptions of quiet reading doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or couldn’t happen.

    • I remember learning to read and also remember that reading silently to myself came very naturally. It was instinctive. Reading feels very similar to thinking your own thoughts, and people do that silently. It’s certainly more polite if there are others in the room.

    • But is it a myth? You must remember that until quite late in classical times, writing was done in an uninterrupted string of letters without word spaces or punctuation. It was a much more straightforward recording of speech sounds, without any of the cues we use to parse the text visually.

      I am not, of course, an expert on ancient manuscripts, but I’ve bumped up against occasions when I had to read ancient Greek or Latin script (photo-reproduced), and faced with that jungle of solid letters – well, my lips started moving instinctively.

      • Yes indeedy, the job of Alexandrian scholars was strongly caught up in providing punctuation and word separation for texts that were already a couple hundred years old.

        And don’t think I’m not grateful.

        • Unfortunately, the whole time those Alexandrian scholars were at work, copyists elsewhere were still producing books the old-fashioned way, without punctuation or word separation. Old habits died hard. And it wasn’t always the punctuated version of the text that survived.

      • If you’d spent your life’s career reading them it would’ve gotten easier. And this argument doesn’t address the Asian forms of writing at all.

        • The ancients themselves did not, as a rule, spend their entire careers reading manuscripts. As for the Asian forms of writing, they are irrelevant to the original argument.

          Incidentally, the Gothic word for ‘to read’ is us-sigwan, which means roughly ‘to recite’. They, at any rate, were not acquainted with silent reading. (4th c. A.D.)

  3. How is the internet different from taking two or three newspapers every day? We’ve simply cut out the gatekeepers on our news.

    Unless we get all our news is on Facebook, but that’s another story.

  4. What would people prefer to read silently or to hear the information? For the silent readers the answer is obvious, read silently, be in your own head with the story. But, why was writing invented in the first place? To communicate information. And before writing, information was exchanged by sound, by speaking. Several thousands years forward and here we are with better and better tools to converted written words into spoken words and spoken words into writing. With new generations having ear buds to listen to information, and if applications (which exist) are used to read your text and text your speech, how long will it be before writing becomes an old style of communication? This may not be our world, but it could be tomorrow’s non-written world.

    • …how long will it be before writing becomes an old style of communication?

      Interesting idea, but some of us process visual information (writing) much better than heard information (spoken), and vice versa. For that reason, I suspect both types of communication will stick around, although possibly in different proportions from today’s.

      • As far as visual information versus audio it seems to be that visual is better, but I think it has to do with what we are used to. Decades ago I realized that on my way to work I listen to the same music, or the same news on the car radio over and over again. I wanted to read more books, but I was too busy, until the day I realized I should be listening to audio books (books on tape back then.) At first it was awkward, but soon I got used to it and the commute was a breeze. No more frustration with the traffic, and I read/listened for two hours or more every working day. Best use of my time while riding to work. Although I can listen to an audio book in the car, I have to read a book when I’m at home or anywhere else.
        It is a matter of what you get used too, and if the technology will advance where reading is as unusual as calligraphic writing with ink and plume, then the future generation will find reading as bizarre as using the Morse Code to communicate.

        • The technology isn’t the problem. What will these wondrous spoken media use in place of scripts? Surely they won’t improvise their entire texts on the spot, or require the performers to memorize them in toto; that would be the very opposite of a technological advance.

          • God only knows. With upcoming driver-less cars, you don’t need to know how to drive or read the DMV traffic laws. The GPS in my car gives me verbal instructions.

            • And what makes those cars drive themselves? Millions upon millions of lines of written code.

              • True, but how many people who will be using the cars would be to read and write that code?

                • Not many – but someone has to. And someone has to read and write the scripts for all the video and multimedia. And you can be damned sure that someone has to read and write all the contracts and legalese binding the innumerable parties that are needed to produce these things, because if you think a 50-page contract is hard to read, Brother, you ain’t ever tried to find a particular clause in 15,000 words of spoken gabble.

  5. Television and radio news are in a large part spoken communication of written content. In the UK, an AnchorPerson is called a NewsReader.

  6. Since ancient literature was composed with an ear to how it would sound and feel, reading it silently is usually a stupid idea. You miss out on half the enjoyment, and often on some of the point (especially with wordplay). Even an audiobook in English of the Iliad or Odyssey is far superior to reading those epics silently.

    It was also regarded as miserly to read silently. Silent reading kept it all to yourself, whereas reading out loud encourages thought and discussion among everyone within earshot. (Which is why St. Augustine explains how hard it must have been for a bishop like St. Ambrose to find a moment to think and get work done, unless he took the unusual measure of reading silently.)

    However, St. Ambrose came from a military background, and silent reading was probably a good security measure.

    Of course, we are the society that teaches people to read poetry silently, so clearly we are just stupid enough to over-value silent reading.

  7. Al the Great and Powerful

    I do read poetry silently. And I enjoy it, I get the feelings out of it.

    So I would rail against your screed about reading aloud, except that I’ve heard some good poems done better by being spoken aloud, and some songs that sold the lyrics in a way the lyrics couldn’t by themselves.

    Some writing DOES benefit from reading aloud, the cadences, the silences, the emotion in the voice or its lack. I don’t think that invalidates silent reading, but I do acknowledge reading out loud works too.

    But I do have to take exception with your examples of the Iliad and Odyssey and their wordplay. Because what you read or hear in English is NOT what was put down by the creator, it is what was put down by the translator. You DON’T get the original spoken phrases, you get the best-fit version in English (or whatever tongue it was translated into). Given that, I cannot support your allegation that aloud is best. Enjoying the words is best, HOWEVER the reader/hearer chooses, because even filtered through translators, editors, and publishers, they still shine.

    Al the Great and Silent Reader and sometime Singer (though some would rather I sing silently as well)

    • C. S. Lewis, who knew the Classics (note capital C) as well as anyone in modern times, said that he only learned to appreciate Homer by hearing him read aloud in the original Greek. Because ancient Greek uses both pitch and volume to indicate stress, and uses them separately, there is a powerful polyrhythmic surge and flow to Homer’s verse which can only be appreciated when you know how it is pronounced.

      Suburbanbanshee’s allegation may not be supported by the particular example of hearing Homer in translation. It is supported by much stronger evidence than that.

  8. Al the Great and Powerful

    We don’t disagree that spoken poetry is good.

    I said, “Some writing DOES benefit from reading aloud, the cadences, the silences, the emotion in the voice or its lack. I don’t think that invalidates silent reading, but I do acknowledge reading out loud works too.”

    You said, “Suburbanbanshee’s allegation may not be supported by the particular example of hearing Homer in translation.”

    This we appear to agree on.

    You said, “It is supported by much stronger evidence than that.”

    This we appear to agree on too, and is what I said myself in the quote above…

    However, unless one understands ancient Greek, or Latin, like the learned C.S. Lewis, the reader is left with the filtered versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey in English, which don’t replicate the ‘powerful polyrhythmic surge and flow to Homer’s verse’. Likewise, I cannot feel the same appreciation for classic poetry from China or Japan or Korea that a native speaker from the time, who knows the original language and is steeped in the nuances that underlay the work.

    So I’m always torn when I read works in translation, wondering what aspects I’m missing. Which gives me what the Japanese poets were trying to do, a feeling of the transience of things. So hey, poetry works!

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