Teaching the Art of Reading in the Digital Era


“What queer disease is this,” wrote the late-19th-century psychologist William James, “of holding things and staring at them like that for hours, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life.” The physical act of sustained reading is certainly strange. It can even be off-putting. In the novel Middlemarch, the stodgy Mr. Featherstone observes as much when he discovers his servant, Mary Garth, lost in a novel. “I can’t abide to see her reading to herself,” he says. But for the person hunched over Middlemarch, losing oneself in such a way is a rarefied form of bliss. It’s beyond reproach.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of reading is that, for all the pleasures of the text, we must be taught to do it. Recognizing symbols and signs, as well as the ability to assign them meaning, might be innate to the human brain, but directing these abilities to follow words on the page—a relatively new skill in human history—requires instruction. Like a child learning to ride a bike without training wheels, the magical moment comes when the parent lets go and the child pedals off—and keeps going. “The most significant kind of learning,” writes the Stanford University reading specialist Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” The wonder of experiencing a novel (or the sensation of coasting on two wheels) can be habit-forming.

Unfortunately, considerable evidence suggests that Americans are both reading less and reading with less intensity. It’s not unusual to hear well-educated adults who once read regularly now lament the decline in their bookish habits. In a widely circulated 2015 Medium article (“Why Can’t We Read Anymore?“), Hugh McGuire, who founded Librivox, which distributes public-domain audiobooks, highlighted the frenetic nature of digital life as the primary reason for why he was “finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters.” According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, the typical American adult now reads only four books a year. Twenty-seven percent didn’t read a single book in 2015, and a 2016 report from the National Endowment for the Arts found that reading had dropped, as the Washington Post summarized it, “to at least a three-decade low.”

As the art of close reading—a finely grained analysis of a text—has declined, a cohort of experts has emerged to reverse the trend and encourage stronger reading habits. Their solution has a kind of old-school simplicity to it: We need to allow the physicality of the book itself to lure us back into the pleasures of reading.

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