Authors Need to Stop Shaming Readers for How They Read

Authors Need to Stop Shaming Readers for How They Read

This is another one of those things where I thought to myself, for fuck's sake, I can't believe I actually have to say this. But I keep coming across authors who like to shame readers for not reading the way the authors want them to. 

The ranty panties are back on, y'all, and some logic bombs are getting dropped. 

A couple of months ago I ranted about an author I saw shaming readers for reading via audiobooks. Then a few weeks back, I saw another author shaming readers for their skim reading, their attention span, and the length of books they read. This is a tired old tale, one that was original back in, perhaps, 2006, if such a stance could be said to be original at all.

Most recently, this was dredged up in The Guardian. Long story short, the article laments that people are skim reading because they don't want to slow down and do deep critical thinking because that's more of a challenge. I'm not one to deny science and I don't necessarily think this is patently false. But I do think the article lacks some important nuance and ignores readers' reality. 

For instance, the author gives this as an example:

English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and arguments found in more demanding texts.


I don't think it's correct to assume that students who avoid 19th and 20th-century classic literature 1) don't have the patience for it and 2) are intellectually unable to perform critical analysis and understand more demanding texts. There may be a correlation, but I highly doubt there's causation here. In fact, I'm a testament that this isn't true in all cases. I was an English major in college, which means I was reading all the time, and I avoided 19th and 20th-century classics because I found a number of them abysmally boring. 

Plus, the texts of predominantly old white men are shoved down students' throats throughout high school and college, often without regard to students' interests and often in offense to their marginalized identities. Why should, for example, a black student care to read the words of some centuries past dead guy who saw them as 3/5ths of a person, if they say them as a human at all? Avoiding those books is not a sign of "cognitive impatience" or lack of intelligence. Rather, it could be a sign that the person is simply interested in reading other things. 

Furthermore, the aforementioned quote works on the assumption that it's only 19th and 20th-century classic literature is the only literature that could possibly prepare students to be able to comprehend demanding and complex texts. Actually, such as assumption ignores the plethora of books published every week that are dense and demand critical thinking.

As someone who reads over 100 books a year, I can tell you that the books that have challenged me most were those published within the past 60 years, hardly any of which I read as assigned texts in school. How short-sighted it would be to assume those books somehow didn't count. 

And that's not the only thing lacking nuance in the article. 

The “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.

The author references the above quote as being the synopsis of a series of studies performed by Ziming Liu from San Jose State University. However, the author doesn't say the medium of the text in this instance. I couldn't help thinking that, depending on the medium, of course readers would skim and being able to do so effectively is a helpful skill. 

Take the example of someone reading an article online. When you give away the punchline of the article in the headline and you put all these ads and quote blocks and links to other articles in the sidebar––things that are designed to distract people reading digitally––how can you not skim? Or not jump around as you read? The whole experience of reading online publications is designed to disrupt linear reading. The irony is that the very article in question was published in an online publication that has all of these distracting attributes! 

The problem, it seems to me, is not with the text itself or the attention span of the reader––it's with the design of the website, which is more concerned with ad revenue and click-through rates than actually creating an enjoyable, distraction-free reading experience. To me, that's not a fundamental problem with readers' brains, but rather a (fixable) problem with the goals of content creators. (And yes, I understand content creators and the publications, online and otherwise, who edit and publish them need to make money, but that's a whole 'nother post.)

As I was ranting about this article to Robyn Hammontree, a fellow reader friend (who also reads 100+ books a year, used to work at the Institute for Reading Development, and now currently works in curriculum development at the University of Alabama), she made some excellent points. 

I also think it's indicative of what our (very smart) brains do in a society that expects us to consume so much information all the time. It would be stupid of our brains NOT to skim content that calls for skimming. I have to take in a tremendous amount of information from the computer/Internet every day in order to do my job. If I read everything I have to read as deeply as I read my favorite novel, I would never complete a single task.

However, I think this does become a habit if we're not careful, and it's one of the reasons I think reading long-form content is so important. It's why I think some people are so uncomfortable when they sit down to read a book after a day of not focusing on one thing for more than three minutes at a time. Books force our brains to slow down and read deeply, and I think that's good for our brains (and hearts and souls and for society as a whole.) I think it trains our brains to slow down in conversations, in moments of anxiety, in times when we need to make big decisions. So in that way, I do think it's a problem with our brains--one that was created by the society we live in. But it's not a problem that doesn't have a very simple solution: read more books and long-form essays. Boom: problem solved.

But wait, there's more. 

The article goes on to say this, which made me eye-roll even more. 

The sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text. As Piper notes, human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination – what he calls the “technology of recurrence”. The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”

Anyone who has ever tried to find a reference in a print book without an index or a print magazine or newspaper knows that, short of re-reading the whole thing again, it's much easier to find things in a digital text. If I wanted to re-examine something I read digitally, chances are there's a search bar or Google to help me find what I'm looking for. But if I want to find a New York Times article from two years ago and can't remember when it was published and someone drops a huge stack of newspapers at my feet, it's going to take me hours, days, or weeks to find what I'm looking for without digital assistance. 

It's ridiculous to think that re-reading, re-examination, and looking back can only be done effectively by reading print. In fact, that ease of searchability is one of the main features of digital reading and I cannot fathom how that's a bad thing. 

But the ignorance doesn't stop there. 

The negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade - with implications not only for comprehension but also on the growth of empathy.

If we accept the premise that screen reading inhibits understanding and lessens our ability to foster empathy, then it seems to me that we'd also have to believe that the soldiers who have killed people with unmanned drones don't actually suffer from PTSD and that people who meet their partners on dating apps aren't really in love and that it's impossible to make friends on the internet. If we can develop mental illness, fall in love, and make friends across the digital plane, why then would we not believe we can read effectively on it too? 

Moving on...

[It] is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

I don't think the purposes for why we read have really changed and, if they have, I doubt it's because of the medium. People read for education and entertainment––nearly every genre you can think of would fit into one of those two over-arching categories.

And I don't see how the medium changes what we read. Earlier in the article, the author lamented students not wanting to read 19th and 20th-century classic literature, apparently forgetting that Project Gutenberg was one of the first digital reading initiatives and it was focused solely on the classics. If students aren't reading the classics, it's not because they're not available or accessible, but rather because they have other options. 

I would also argue, as Robyn did, that skimming allows readers to "navigate a constant bombardment of information." Unless I'm reading for pleasure, chances are I'm on a schedule and I need to absorb the information in a timely manner. It's also the job of the authors of non-entertainment reads to be succinct. Anyone who's familiar with journalism has heard of the inverted triangle of information–-there's a reason for that and it pre-dates digital reading. It's awfully privileged to assume everyone has an infinite amount of time to leisurely read. 

Furthermore, skimming and digitally accessible reading allows people to consume more information. Meaning that, if the reader so desires, they can read both sides of any given issue. I don't see how more reading or reading on any particular medium automatically defaults to "incentiviz[ing] a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery." Again, it's a correlation at best, but certainly not a causation. 

I should say that there were other parts of the article that I disagreed with and in which I found holes in the logic, these are just the pieces I felt the need to respond to. 

Here's something I find interesting. The author of the article is Maryanne Wolf, whom her bio states is "the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA." If I didn't know better, I'd think that's all she did. In fact, she's an author herself and her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of The Reading Brain is on my shelf. She's also written other books.

I find it curious that someone who's an author wouldn't mention that in their bio, especially when writing about reading. Perhaps it's petty of me, but I can't help wondering if she's just mad her books didn't sell better and wants somewhere to put the blame. People skim reading is an all-too-convenient target. 

I did some additional research on Maryanne and the internet tells me she has a Ph.D. from Harvard. I've only got a BA in English Literature. On paper, she's smarter than I'll ever be. But it's thanks to all the books I read––print, digital, and audio––that I developed the critical thinking skills necessary to identify holes in her arguments and not fall victim to the very demagoguery and the "familiar silos of unchecked information" evident in her article. Oh, the irony.

I expect more nuance––and, frankly, critical thinking––from someone who wants me to believe there's something wrong with the way I read.  

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