I draw my title from a recent essay by best selling author James Patterson, titled The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking. His essay raises the question of what kind of republic will we be when the average amount that first time voters read is less than ten minutes a day? He is concerned that a tweet-length attention span is inadequate to give careful attention to the complexities that face our nation.
This brought to mind my recent reading of The Wired Soul (reviewed here) and the finding that how we interact with the digital media in our lives literally re-wires our brains, and does so in ways that dispose us to lots of short bursts of disconnected information in tweets, Facebook posts, and scanned articles on screens. There is more and more evidence that these habits of reading make it more difficult for us to give extended attention to a text–whether it be the Bible, a long-form essay, or a book. We are losing our ability to give extended attention to anything.
I wonder if this applies not only to text but to our interactions with people. How many times have you heard the phrase, “cut to the chase?” How many times have you felt that you needed to say something faster, because the other person seemed impatient, distracted, eager to get to the “next” thing, whatever it is. How many times have I (or you) been that impatient person?
Yet how many times are the most important things we want to say to another person reducible to 140 characters? This is even more the case when two people (or parties) cannot see eye to eye about something. Real understanding requires far more communication than a tossed-off slogan. Patterson’s concerns seem pretty valid to me–if we cannot engage in long, attentive conversation where understanding a different point of view, wrestling with complexity and nuance are involved, we might be in real trouble. Consider, for example The Federalist Papers, which lay out in a series of extended arguments, the reasons for the particular form of government that was being proposed in our Constitution. I cannot imagine where we would be if we had to depend on a series of tweets!
So, what is to be done? Patterson, to his credit has put his money where his mouth is, providing grants and scholarships, and funding for reading programs and bookstores. His challenge in his essay is that those of us who recognize the value of the “long-form thinking” involved in being able to sit down with a book and follow an argument should get off our duffs and do something about our functional illiteracy as a culture. He suggests:
“Are you upset about this election? Are you upset about the direction of this society? Then fix it. You’re a reader. You know what reading does for your ability to think things through. Get out there and make this your No. 1 priority. Got a kid? Make her read 20 minutes a day. Got a neighbor who stares at his phone all day? Get him a good book. Volunteer at the library. Volunteer at a school. At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-form journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”
The last one got me. I have been thinking about subscribing to The Atlantic. I’ve clicked on so many good articles from this publication recently and continue to be impressed with the thoughtfulness of the writing I find there. So, before writing this paragraph I decided to subscribe. Apparently there are others who are thinking this way as well. According to a Fortune article, at least 132,000 people have subscribed to the New York Times since the election with other publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also seeing rises in subscriptions.
Given that I am writing during the holiday season, this sparks some other ideas of what we could do:
- If you are taking vacation, take a book along and take at least 20 minutes a day to read uninterrupted, preferably stashing your smartphone somewhere else.
- Buy at least one book for each child or grandchild. If appropriate, read it together, snuggled up on a comfy couch or chair. You will never regret it.
- Many libraries and bookstores have programs where you can donate a book to a child. Giving the gift of reading to someone else is a great way to celebrate the season.
- If you are retired and looking for ways to volunteer, go to your library, or local elementary school. In many cases they have opportunities to help children read.
- Buy a book you think your circle of friends would like to read and give it to them. Suggest reading it by a certain date (maybe by the end of January during the winter doldrums) and get together to discuss it. If you like the idea, you could form a book group. If not, you can say you read at least one book in 2017 (something that 28% of the population has not done).
- Give a gift subscription to a magazine you like to a friend. It helps them, and helps magazines subscribe as well. And for the digital natives, most magazines offer both print and digital versions with a print subscription.
I think Patterson is right. The trends in the decline of functional literacy are alarming, and the implications even more. It might mean we begin with ourselves. And if we already have cultivated the reading habit, it might mean being creative–and not insufferable–in inviting others to begin to re-wire their brains through the delights of long-form reading with physical texts. We may not have the millions Patterson is putting behind his conviction. But we all have social capital–other people whose lives we influence. We all can do something.