Posted by: Yorgos | March 10, 2008

Text 8 – How do we read?

Along with all the other changes that electronic media have brought to the world, a change in our reading habits has occurred as well. I won’t discuss here the totality of the changes in the way we read, just one which I feel is really important.

A wee introduction first: Before typography was invented and the first few centuries after it, people have little access to books (if at all). This meant that they had to read the same ones over and over. A book would be a valuable object, something to hold on to, they contained the knowledge of the world.

Later, in the 19th and, mostly, 20th centuries, books became plenty. More people were writing, even more people were reading, books were accessible and relatively cheap. The effect of this was that reading changed identity. You could no longer read over and over a single book, since there were so many that you had to read. The function of the books changed in so many ways that I would need a new blog to describe just that. Let us just say that the book as an object was no longer this valuable, but as a concept it still was. People no longer knew so many passages by heart (which is the essence of poetry, according to Harold Bloom – one needs to be able to recite a poem in order to really know it), but their knowledge was more extensive, albeit in narrower subjects. Specialization or special interests came into play (of course here I don’t mean professional interests).

What happens now that electronic media are here? We now have even more books and we can specialize even further, but that is not the problem, the way I see it. The problem is that we are getting used to fragmented reading. There are so many things that we want to read and find about that we have no time but to read brief summaries and editions “for dummies” and it would be enough. I want to learn about quantum physics, but do I really have the patience to read the 50 or 100 books that are needed for a simple acquaintance with such a vast subject? No, instead, I read a book that is an introduction for it, or a couple of web pages, which, of course, I don’t explore all that well.

What I am trying to say is this. We have become hasty and impatient readers and this is partly because the electronic media, which have befriended speed, force us to become so. So, instead of knowing lots of things really well, or instead of knowing ever more things not so well (but specializing in something), we now know too many things, but none too well (again, this has nothing to do with the profession we choose). I understand that the accumulated knowledge is too vast and that a homo universalis is no longer possible, but the impossibility of an endeavor has nothing to do with us not giving it a shot anyway. Do we really learn anything in depth these days? Or do we skim the surface of everything before we move on to the next subject? Who has read the complete works of a favorite writer – twice? Who knows everything there is to know about the jazz scene of the 40’s?

Could I be wrong? I hope I am, because being right means a lack of passion, a lack of true love, which is replaced by lots of fooling around.


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