Reading shallow and deep

Executive summary (added July 28, 2020): I read an article praising so-called deep reading, one of whose exponents is Henry Kissinger. The world is apparently being corrupted by people who do not read deeply; and this includes ourselves, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by social media. I myself find the article corrupted by references to neuroscience, and I am sorry that the writer, Adam Garfinkle, does not tell us about his own experience of reading. His article comes recommended by George Will, whose tenure at the Washington Post can be blamed on my grandfather. I reminisce about him and about my own deep or at least long reading, in college and more recently. I take a hedonistic view of this reading.

Seeing a tweet condemning the superficiality of Twitter, I could not pass up the challenge. I read the linked essay, “What we lost when we stopped reading” (The Washington Post, April 17, 2020). That was by George Will, summarizing and recommending a longer essay, by Adam Garfinkle, “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” (National Affairs, number 43, spring 2020). I read that, yesterday evening and this morning (April 21, 2020).

My computer showing two pages of text in front of a window

You can read Garfinkle’s article too, either at the link that I gave, or in my own highlighted, annotated version, which I created as follows. As I often do with a web article that I may spend time on, I “printed” the article to a pdf file, selecting page size A5 in the usual portrait orientation. Some web articles won’t save this way, text being blocked by banners or clipped. Garfinkle’s essay was fine. The font size seemed large, so I reduced it to 90%. That means I reduced the size by 10%. I see from a recent tweet of a friend that the Daily Mail has confused the distinction here; but then, by Collingwood’s account, that newspaper was confusing readers about communism and fascism in the 1930s. Anyway, the number of pages of Garfinkle’s article was reduced from 53 to 43. I read these in the Evince viewer, in dual mode, fitting the pages to the screen. I used the viewer’s facility to highlight passages and attach notes.

Again, you can read Garfinkle too, if you want. Should you want? Perhaps not, but I found the essay interesting. George Will seems to think you should read it in any case, at least if you are capable. He concludes of the essay,

It requires what it describes—deep literacy—and might be a spur to binge reading.

He began by saying,

Long before today’s coronavirus lockdown provided occasions for the vice that the phrase denotes, “binge watching” had entered Americans’ lexicon. Few, however, speak of binge reading.

I don’t know why binge watching should be counted a vice, but then it’s not something that tempts me. George Will has been belittling his readers since 1974, when my grandfather Kenneth Crawford, by his own account, recommended that Katherine Graham hire Will to replace the late Stewart Alsop at Newsweek.

I possess my grandfather’s copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the 1926 edition in a 1954 printing; I took it from the house of my mother after she had died. But in 1983, when I was a senior in high school, in the supposed capital of the Free World, I disdained what I did not understand, which was politics. I had not been interested in my grandfather’s life; but then he died. At a gathering in his memory, at the Georgetown house he had shared with my grandmother, when somebody asked what I was interested in, he did not like my answer of mathematics. “What a terrible thing to be interested in!” he said. “Everybody is interested in mathematics!” Maybe he confused mathematics with computers.

That man, Richard Strout, must have hoped I would express an interest in writing. He had written the TRB column in The New Republic since my grandfather gave it up during the War, after editor Bruce Bliven had “edited one of my pieces to say the opposite of what I intended” concerning U.S. policy in North Africa.

cover of Richard L. Strout, TRB: Views and Perspectives on the Presidency

Currently I cannot document from the web my grandfather’s anonymous writing of the TRB column; the Wikipedia account of the column starts with Strout, who in his own online recollections mentions Bliven but not my grandfather. However, in a column of March 7, 1964, found in the collection called TRB: Views and Perspectives on the Presidency (Macmillan, 1979), Strout recalls,

All this talk about the fiftieth anniversary of The New Republic caused us to look back at the dusty manila files of our own contributions. Yes, it was 1944 when we started making regular contributions to this space. We pulled out the crumbling pages uneasily, remembering the casual invitation of Bruce Bliven to take over from Ken Crawford, and wondering what monstrous blunders we should find.

I thank my cousin (who shares his first and last names with our grandfather) for sending me photos of our grandfather’s copy of Strout’s book.

"To Kenneth Crawford / the best reporter in / Washington / From whom I inherited / TRB in 1943-4 / Richard L. Strout / Nov 2, 1979"

Inscription in Strout, TRB

In the summer of 1986, three years after my encounter with Strout, George Will had a column in the Washington Post about the people who go to the beach with War and Peace, but never make it to the Battle of Borodino. In the fall in Santa Fe, one of our seminar tutors at St John’s College recalled this column to us, as we began our senior year discussing Tolstoy’s novel.

The College assigned such novels for holidays: Don Quixote for the summer before junior year, Tom Jones for the winter break that year, Emma for the spring, The Brothers Karamazov for the following spring. For winter break in senior year, I think the reading was not a novel, but The Origin of Species; for I remember starting to read it on the bus to the airport in Albuquerque in December.

I infer from Garfinkle’s essay that there are people who read long books in college, but don’t read them any more, and blame social media for this. George Will seems to think such people might be shamed into taking up big books again.

Shame is not a reason to take up a big book; pleasure is. I had the pleasure of reading War and Peace, a chapter a day, for all but four days of 2017. I was one of a number who read along with Brian Denton, whose recent retweet led me to Will’s essay and thus to Garfinkle’s.

Garfinkle’s essay is interesting, and I read it twice, as I said. I still don’t really know what the point is, unless to say that the world needs people like us and Henry Kissinger, who are capable of abstract thought, through our experience of deep reading. The man whom (in a book excerpted in Harper’s) Christopher Hitchens accused of being a war criminal is quoted from an unnamed source as saying:

A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer. There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface … This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.

Only people who can think strategically are capable of self-government. Without them—without us—the masses are swayed by emotion to put demagogues in office. If Garfinkle has a message, that’s what I understand it to be. That message would be for the “front row,” in the terminology of Chris Arnade: those of us who paid attention in school and have been rewarded for it.

Those reading this essay [says Garfinkle] developed these habits of mind as children who learned to read and now continue to do so as adults. In an odd way, that’s the problem: We almost never reflect on how unusual, and in many ways unnatural, deep reading actually is.

Maybe so. Maybe it’s unnatural that I don’t engage in binge watching. Here’s Arnade, from an interview with the Catholic News Agency that he tweeted about just today:

… the front row controls things now. They generally are the “in” group. They define stuff. And it’s the back row who is the one who is suffering from the decisions made by the front row, who have a very narrow worldview that they can’t seem to think beyond.

If they do think beyond it, it usually means they either want to study the back row as sort of a scientific specimen or they want to pity them and save them without questioning their worldview.

And people know when they’re being laughed at. The front row isn’t directly laughing at people. But there is this sense of, again, when they view the back row, it’s often viewed as people who are wounded, to be pitied and helped, as opposed to people to be listened to as equals.

I recall a joke told among my parents’ generation, when I was a wee lad; the wondrous world-wide web provides me with a transcription:

Nixon, Kissinger, Billy Graham and a hippie are in an airplane. The pilot has a heart attack and dies and they decide they have to parachute jump to safety. Unfortunately there are only three parachutes. Nixon grabs one saying, “I am the president of the United States, the leader of the free world and the most important man in the world. It is important that I survive” and jumps out. Kissinger also grabs one saying “I’m the world’s smartest man and the advisor to the president. It is important that I too survive” and jumps out. Then Billy Graham says to the hippie, “Go ahead, my son, you can take the last parachute.” And the hippie says, “Don’t worry reverend, there’s two left, the world’s smartest man just grabbed my knapsack.”

Garfinkle’s essay is gummed up with pointless references to neuroscience. I have commented on this in my annotations. Of course our brains change, along with the rest of the world. If you want to say that our experiences “rewire” our brains, that’s fine if it helps you avoid bad habits, but not if it is an excuse to keep those habits. In addition to a joke about Nixon and Kissinger, I recall also that if you stretch your skin to make a funny face, and hold it too long, your face will stay that way. That’s what I heard from the girl next door, who was a year older than I. Here’s a like warning: if you keep thinking a certain way, it will stick. Except maybe it won’t.

The habit of deep reading may be hard to develop and easy to break. The only reason to develop the habit in the first place is pleasure, like the pleasure of having a friend. By the account of Maryanne Wolf, as summarized by Garfinkle,

Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text.

One “engages … in a dialectical process with the text”: one engages in a dialogue with the writer, or at least the image of the writer that one has created. There does have to be a real writer though, as Garfinkle also reports:

In order for deep reading to exist there also must be deep writing. The author also must abstract the message being crafted because, usually, no specific reader can be readily anticipated or held in mind.

All of this takes work; at least it takes work to get to the level where it can be a pleasure. This is where education comes in.

I pause to note that children didn’t need to be told to read the enormous Harry Potter books. I haven’t read them myself, but some persons who have read them must now reconcile their pleasure from the books with their judgment of the author as a transphobe. In any case, I can only repeat one of my themes, suggested for example in “Şirince 2014” and “All You Need Is Love: the point of education is to seduce students into learning about pleasures that they might not have discovered on their own.

That’s important to think about now, during the pandemic, when some administrators may be thinking of continuing indefinitely with on-line teaching, because it seems so much more efficient than getting together in a classroom. Maybe Garfinkle wrote his essay last year, before the pandemic, since he says for example

A greater percentage of Americans may be deep literate in 2019 than in 1819 or 1919, but probably not than in 1949.

I should like to see documentation for such a claim; meanwhile, to say “deep literate” rather than “deeply literate” is itself an illiteracy, like the title of the book My Parents Open Carry. In any case, obviously Garfinkle is not obliged to have written the essay I might have preferred. But I still don’t know why he is writing. He may aim to be “scientific,” as by saying,

The phenomenon of deep literacy can be a powerful explanatory factor for a range of theoretical and practical questions … We should continue to generate new and more interesting questions to pose about deep literacy, and the meaning of its possible erosion, or transformation by novel means, in our own country and beyond.

That sounds like a plea for more research funding. I would rather hear about the writer’s own internal dialogues with the authors he reads.

One Trackback

  1. By Thoreau and Anacreon « Polytropy on May 9, 2020 at 8:14 am

    […] « Reading shallow and deep […]

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