Online skimming vs. reading Middlemarch

Skimming online makes “deep reading” more difficult, according to the Washington Post. As adults spend five hours a day on laptops or mobile devices, we’re developing “digital brains.”

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. 

College students can’t read the classics, professors tell Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

 “They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

. . . “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Daniel Willingham, also a cognitive scientist, doesn’t think brains change that easily. Don’t blame the Internet, he writes on Real Clear Education. We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to.

“The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully,” he concludes. “The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

Readers don’t understand more when they read for pleasure on paper versus on screen, he writes. Comprehension is the same for textbook reading too, though on-screen reading takes longer.

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  1. My teens are with Wiillingham. They don’t want to spend hours deciphering convoluted syntax. Their teachers aren’t asking them to produce convoluted writing either. It might as well be considered a foreign language as it has diverged so far from modern English.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      When I was lgm’s teens’ age–well before the internet!–I didn’t want to read convoluted syntax either. I was willing to make the effort to understand a lot of things but I didn’t want to feel like I was chopping my way through a jungle. I wanted the writer to clear a path for me and mark it well.

      To be able to do that, and to do it in an interesting way, is a skill few writers have. There are damn few Isaac Asimovs or Stephen Jay Goulds (or early Paul Krugmans).

  2. Sharon R. says:

    My 11 yr old finished reading “Around the World in 80 Days” today, which I was far too lazy to read at his age (or now!). Now he’s reading Treasure Island. He ran out of library books on vacation so was reading whatever was available on the classic books and stories Nintendo DS game cartridge I found him in the bargain bin a while back… What’s really going on with him is that he found “The Secret Garden” a few years ago in the classroom library (new teacher, so she only had books scavenged from her parents) and discovered that even if books have strange old language, they can be fun. He’s also read through the Lord of the Rings books twice, so he may just have a very high tolerance. I still have never managed to finish Return of the King. The point to all this is that my kid is also a video game obsessed boy who only ever wants to be on screen time. Except when he’s reading. I’m not convinced the younger generation is doomed. They just have to be pointed at good books, and some of the kids will fall in love. Others won’t.

    • Oh, my sons enjoy many of the classics. They just aren’t interested in the ones that have convoluted language. They would rather spend their thinking time on math proofs. Similar skill, much more meaningful, and not loaded with historical context and euphemisms that detract from the ideas.