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Are we losing the ability to read?

Umberto Eco is one of those writers whom I missed completely when he was happening. This week, I picked The Name of the Rose at Delhi airport. It took me more than an hour of reading two paragraphs at a time, to finally get into the book. I just could not read it continuously. And chances are, if I had not been on a flight and the phone had been on, I wouldn’t have managed to get hooked to it. Now I am and it is, so far, an interesting read.


Read Alert: American writer Nicholas Carr reckoned that more than 15 years of the Internet had changed the way we read. The ability to deep dive into a book or an article is almost impossible even for the most dedicated readers. 

Some years back, I gave up on The Lord of the Rings after two attempts. On the third, I was hooked, so badly that I actually bunked work to read it. For someone who has been a voracious reader most of her life, this impatience with and inability to get into a story that does not get to the point from page one, is unusual.

Storytelling is about building up the whole edifice, character by character and context by context. Maybe it has changed forms over centuries, so Thomas Hardy and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay seem a bit dated, but nevertheless we read them and heard the stories the writers had to say. Why don’t we do so any longer?

Are we losing the ability to read? The immediate assertion I get in response to this, ‘digital media is making dumb dependents of all of us.’ One editor challenged me to, ‘Show me a reporter who can research without Google.’ Maybe we are becoming so dependent on computers, the Internet and the anytime devices all of us (including me) live on that it doesn’t strike us that we have forgotten how to read. So, I looked all over for research on this and funnily enough found lots.

“Is Google making us dumb?” In 2008 Nicholas Carr had asked this question in an Atlantic Monthly essay. A whole body of work by scholars now details how information and entertainment on new media devices, chips away at the ability to ‘read, concentrate and reflect’, to quote Carr. The empirical and anecdotal evidence, too, is there, even in markets such as India, which are low on all digital indices.

Carr reckoned that more than 15 years of the Internet had changed the way we read. The ability to deep dive into a book or an article is almost impossible even for the most dedicated readers. To quote him — we consume information in bits and pieces, skim through, speed read or power browse.

In India, high economic growth, a booming media and entertainment industry, the complexities of language and region make for a potent cocktail of sociological and economic factors that are changing the way we look at the written word. Now, add one more ingredient to this cocktail — more than half of India is very young, many brought up post-liberalisation, on the Internet and mobile phone. And their ability to focus is pathetic.

In the media schools where I teach, students find it impossible to read a couple of pages continuously. If you told them to read The Economist or Salon, online or otherwise, they are flummoxed. The thought of reading
a 2,000-word piece and not a PowerPoint presentation or a 200- word online piece aggregated by a search engine is something they cannot comprehend.

Funnily enough, the very market that is pushing us to the multitude of pleasures that online combined with new devices offer, does not value the distracted, multitasking consumers that we have all become.

An online reader of a newspaper in the US commands less than 14 times the ad rates that an offline one does. So, the market still attaches a premium to our ability to concentrate, absorb and take in what it has to offer.

It is time then to attempt to read all the other books that I haven’t managed to.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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