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Commentary: Skimming, scanning, scrolling – the age of deep reading is over

LONDON: Any monk still producing calligraphy after 1492 probably sensed he was working in an outdated medium. I write texts of more than 30 words, so I now feel the same.

Digital reading appears to be destroying habits of “deep reading”. Stunning numbers of people with years of schooling are in effect illiterate. Admittedly, nostalgics have been whining about new media since 1492, but today’s whines have an evidential basis.

To quote this month’s Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, signed by publishers’ and library associations, scholars, PEN International and others: “The digital realm may foster more reading than ever in history, but it also offers many temptations to read in a superficial and scattered manner – or even not to read at all. This increasingly endangers higher-level reading.”

That’s ominous, because “higher-level reading” has been essential to civilisation. It enabled the Enlightenment, democracy and an international rise in empathy for people who aren’t like us. How will we cope without it?

With hindsight, reading’s reign as a mass pursuit was brief. Only from the late 1700s did longer texts penetrate beyond a small elite in rich countries.

The psychologist Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels Of Our Nature that readers learnt empathy by immersing themselves in other people’s minds. He suspects that “the growth of writing and literacy” sparked the “Humanitarian Revolution” – the spread of human rights, as crystallised in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. That helped inspire unending battles against slavery, torture, witch-burning and superstition. Today, 87 per cent of the world’s adults are literate, estimates UNESCO.

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IS DEEP READING ON A PHONE POSSIBLE?

But digital literacy has changed reading. When you read a book on paper, you can be entirely inside the experience, absorbing hundreds of pages of nuance that begin to capture the world’s complexity. Online, says Maryanne Wolf of UCLA, we are “skimming, scanning, scrolling”.

The medium is the message: Doing deep reading on your phone is as hard as playing tennis with your phone. Recently, a bright 11-year-old told me I was wasting time on books: He absorbed more information faster from Wikipedia. He had a point. But digital readers also absorb more misinformation. And they seldom absorb nuanced perspectives.

In the white paper that underlies the Ljubljana Manifesto, experts catalogue the ravages of digital reading: “Recent studies of various kinds indicate a decline of … critical and conscious reading, slow reading, non-strategic reading and long-form reading.”

In the 2021 international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, 49 per cent of students agreed that “I read only if I have to”, 13 percentage points higher than in 2000. The paper continues: “As much as one-third of (Europeans) struggle even with lower-level reading skills.”

More than one-fifth of adults in the US “fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category”. Separately, post-pandemic reading scores for American 13-year-olds are the lowest in decades. And the Washington-based Center for Global Development recently estimated that literacy in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa among those with five years of schooling has declined this past half century.

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LOSE YOUR READING SKILLS, LOSE YOUR THINKING SKILLS

Any older people dismissing this as a young-person problem should reflect that “literacy skills decline with age”, according to international research by economists Garry Barrett and Craig Riddell. In short, as professors from Northwestern University foresaw in 2005, we are returning to the days when only an elite “reading class” consumes long texts – despite more people spending longer in education and book sales remaining robust.

People who lose reading skills also lose thinking skills. Their need for simplicity is met by politicians offering “simplism”: The ideology of simple answers for complex problems. Simplism is sold under euphemisms such as “common sense”, “moral clarity” and “telling it straight”.

The chief simplist, Donald Trump, speaks at the level of a fourth-grader. By contrast, Jimmy Carter’s 11th-grade speaking level was probably too rarefied even in the print era.

Simplists use conspiracy theories to simplify unintelligible reality. No wonder they disbelieve experts: Simplists have no conception of the quantity or depth of reading that experts have done.

Now the online language around the Israeli-Hamas war – a complex conflict with countless atrocities by Israelis and Palestinians since before 1948 – is terrifyingly simplist, laced with unprecedented quantities of lies. The lack of empathy – “our” dead babies trump “their” dead babies – is ominous.

In his book, Pinker summarises a landmark study of 20th-century political crises thus: “When the complexity of the leaders’ speeches declined, war followed.” The Enlightenment was nice while it lasted.

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