I learned to read when I was four years old. I soon became quite avid and I remember feeling a bit at sea if we went out somewhere and I forgot to bring a book “just in case” we had to wait in traffic or something. My parents enrolled me in a Book of the Month Club for kids, and I was always glad to see the MS Read-a-thon come around.
I was always in honors English throughout the school years, and in college I majored in English with a side of Italian literature (would have been a minor but they didn’t offer enough courses while I was there). Lots and lots of reading. After a long stint in the corporate world where all I read was emails and procedure manuals (with still a slightly obsessive amount of reading for pleasure) I am now a book editor. The highest reader’s ambition: to be paid to read!
But…reading also has a flip side. Have you ever tried to not read something in front of you? Next time you’re out on the town, try to not read billboards, or shop window signs. Can you do it?
When my newborn son was in the hospital, we would drive from our home to the hospital at least once a day on a major highway. Of course (this not being in Vermont) there was a liberal sprinkling of billboards all along the route. One day I just didn’t want to have my consciousness littered with ads for mortgage loans, the state lottery, or harness racing, so I made an effort not to look at the signs.
I almost couldn’t do it. It was like my gaze was magnetically drawn to anything with words. I ended up studiously looking at the weeds growing on the side of the road (Papa was driving) or at the sky or the other cars, though that had its dangers too: few and far between are the cars in California without bumper stickers, personalized license plates, or custom license plate frames with cute phrases.
I thought of those daily drives down I-80 when I read this article discussing Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which asserts that learning to read rewires your brain. I wonder how different my consciousness would be if it weren’t so obsessed with words. Like how I can’t remember foreign language words unless I see or hear them spelled out–why can’t I just remember the sounds themselves? Part of it is that I (and humans in general) am a visual creature–I also sometimes add numbers in a visual way, arranging them into a pattern of dots in my mind.
But then I came across this article, which discusses a study of online reading. Though the study sample was quite small (n=25), and was skewed toward users with higher abilities, the results are still rather depressing: “Users will read about 20% of the text on the average page,” and “On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.”
So, now we’re talking about a different kind of reading. Lots of people make jokes about the short attention span of the internet. Most people I know do not want to read for pleasure on a screen the same way they do with printed materials. Most blog marketers advise a post length maximum of 250 words, the equivalent of one double-spaced paper page of typing. The word count of this post is now at about 550 words, so if you’re still with me, consider yourself part of the internet elite!
Are we rewiring our brains to consume words in a different manner by reading online? Is this merely a manifestation of our ever-shorter conception of time and ever-busier mindset, or are we fundamentally changing our brains? I suppose only time will tell. And until I see Maasai warriors carrying PDAs or Anatolian shepherds checking weather.com on their laptops, I’ll remind myself that these concerns do not affect large swathes of humanity, just pampered Westerners.