In Response to Michael Harris

On 9 February 2018, Michael Harris’s “I Have Forgotten How to Read” appeared in the online Globe & Mail. Harris opens by giving something of an anecdote of struggling to read a novel, using that story to segue into a discussion of the ways in which he perceives reading shifting, both as a practice and as a feature of prevailing culture. He asserts, using selected quotations and a disarming anecdote about one of his nieces, that the distracted interruption facilitated by online reading, with its ready access to additional information and expectation that success is measured in clicks and visitors, is becoming–and for some, has become or has always been–the expected, demanded form of attention. Harris is careful to note that digital environments are spurring more reading, in terms of time spent looking at words and of the number of words seen, but he also notes that reading is increasingly seen as a utilitarian concern, rather than a means of immersion.

Harris offers much worth considering in the piece. For myself, in my own experience as a reader nurtured in print who revels ineptly in the digital, many things ring true. While my daughter does prefer the “big TV” Harris describes his niece as rejecting, she is decidedly digitally native, preferring to sit with multiple screens going, each showing different images–and somehow tracking all of them. And I, who more than once said (accurately, I might add) that I had spend more time reading than doing anything else but breathing–and that only because I breathe while I read–find that I am more and more prone to click from tab to tab to tab than to sit with a book in hand, or a journal, or even a magazine or newspaper. When I do sit with print media, I tend to skip around. And even now, as I write this, I have four separate windows open, two of which are internet browsers, and I have open eleven separate tabs. (One is the tab where I write this blog; another is a tab for Harris’s piece. The rest are ephemera.) I am having to struggle mightily not to click back and forth among them–or to look at other devices I have ready to hand from a nearly pathological need to be available and in contact.

As someone who struggles still to retain some semblance of an identity as an intellectual (as I have noted), I find myself grappling with points Harris raises fairly often. His comment that “The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never ‘natural'” is a prominent example. When I teach, I mostly teach English, and that means much of what I try to get my students to do is focus in ways that they are (mostly) not well trained to do and to which they are rarely, if ever, disposed. And, frankly, most of them will not need to apply the skills of deeper, more careful reading that I would have them develop–although the patience involved may well be of sue to them, and attention to detail serves well in most any endeavor. Too, if, as Harris asserts, “A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing,” then it is also the case that cynical styles of classroom practice will (continue to) emerge–with effects to come (more abundantly) for research. For if it is not of immediate use and gratification, why would any of us attend to it?

Enjoy the piece? Care to help me do more of them? Kick in, maybe?

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