Forgetting How to Read

Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.

I Have Forgotten How to Read” – Michael Harris

Harris’s words cut deep. My research and writing on Kierkegaard, while satisfying in some ways, has been a constant, subtle rebuke of my intellect. Every time I sit down to read (especially when I was reading Either/Or… my God!), I’m reminded, not only of my lack of focus, but of my relative inability to follow a long train of thought that circles around a conclusion in order to make a point. In internet-modernity, we have been trained to scan the words of a document or a journalistic piece for its facts, its tweetable thoughts, its “main idea.” Harris again:

The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

Harris indicates later that it’s actually surprising that we were ever readers of print books at all. Our “natural” state, he says is one of distraction and a shifting gaze because of the environment in which humans evolved (needing to survey the landscape for danger, etc.). This, I think, is a short-sell on what humans are meant to be. It may be our “natural” tendency to be distracted. It may be that our animal instincts pull us toward the inability to form coherent and significant thoughts, and understand the thoughts of other humans. But an understanding of humanity that believes that humans are more than their natural instincts should instead interpret the current state of affairs as though humans are missing something.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Harris indicates by writing this piece. Despite the fact that he believes humans are perhaps reverting to their “natural” states, his bemoaning of the current state of affairs indicates that he knows a deeper truths about what humans ought to be.