Literacy in Modern Culture

This is something that’s been rattling around my head for a while now.

Starting several years ago (perhaps I ignored them before…), I began hearing assorted comments on how we (Western, American, tech-based) were a “post-literate culture.” And I’d initially dismissed it was “That’s absurd, people read constantly on their phones/tablets/etc.”

But I also can’t avoid the sentiment I’ve received, more and more often, from a range of people, that amounts to “I can’t read anymore.” By that, they don’t mean literally, “I can’t read text,” but they mean “I can’t read long form content or books.”

Someone recently put it in a way that was hard to dismiss:

Reading a {book, magazine, newspaper} is a task that requires effort. Doom Scrolling doesn’t…

I’ve heard the same from a lot of other people, though. They’re perfectly competent at reading words… and can’t engage with long form literature or writing anymore.

It certainly took me a bit to get back in the habit, but I also came into it (quite a few years back) knowing that it was a habit I was out of, and it would take work to re-learn. I don’t think that’s how it’s broadly approached, though.

Anyway… I suppose, read books?

I force myself to read 10 minutes a day. Sometimes those 10 minutes snowball into an hour. However I’m currently reading a book that, while interesting, is really terse and kind of a slog. So for the past few months it really has been just 10 minutes a day.

There’s so many forms of entertainment at our fingerprints that sitting down and reading isn’t as fun as it likely was pre-internet. For example, I play a ton of chess online, pre-internet that time would probably have been spent reading.

I don’t think we’re a “post-literature culture”, but likely “less read” than previous times.

I was reading some of PG Wodehouse’s school stories (quite fun in a turn of the century British way) and it struck me that one of the boys got in trouble for hiding a copy of Charles Dickens inside his work he was supposed to be reading.

It struck me because I was assigned Dickens to read in school. The times they change.

But I feel it’s less “everyone is an idiot now” and much more that modern content has perfectly aligned itself with the flight or fight reflex. Longform content can’t be that type because nobody ever spend two hours saying “run! Lion!”

The statistical numbers are pretty bad, too. American adults read something like less than one book a year.

Focus and discipline for a given task behaves like a muscle IMO, including reading. If you focus on using it more, it gets easier. If you don’t, it becomes a strain, and these days the habit when strained is to reach for a phone and pull up something entertaining instead of powering through it.

I’ve noticed in the past few years I read quite a bit slower than I did a decade ago, but I read better. Having a larger breadth of knowledge to draw from means I’m making more comparisons and connections between new information and old. Experience makes it easier to ‘read between the lines’ and make deductions beyond what was said by a given author. Then staying focused on one book at a time [not to say that’s a behavior I’ve mastered yet :confused: ] helps me stay more aware of what an author has said and how that may or may not support the conclusions they later depict.

It might also depend on what one’s goals are in reading. For some it’s entertainment or enjoying the imaginings that come with reading a good story. Others an understanding of history or philosophy. Most often for me it’s to increase my knowledge on a topic I’d like greater practical skill in. Defining the purpose behind reading a book keeps me focused on getting it finished. Even if it is just for fun.

At what level of “Not engaging with long form literature” would you consider things to be “post-literate,” though? Because that’s what it means, as I understand it. The unwillingness rapidly leads to the inability.

We have a lot of tech companies who have wonderfully A/B tested themselves to optimum engagement of fight or flight and a lot of other rapid emotional/instinctual responses.

Wow. :frowning: That’s just depressing. I consider one a month to be abysmal, and our family is quite a bit higher across the board.

This is something that’s definitely less well understood than it should be - you can absolutely “forget how to read,” in the terms of “long form engagement with a book.” I had to get back in the habit, and it took me a while. This is also why I try to argue against reading on phones or tablets - because there’s too much other distraction available with near-zero friction.

Working as designed! My understanding of “human reading/comprehension” is that you need a framework in place to hang the new information on - it’s really like growing a tree, you can’t grow leaves without roots, a trunk, branches extending out, spidering into smaller ones, etc. And this is one of the problems with “Just search for an answer to everything” approaches to problem solving - you can find a leaf, but you don’t have the tree to hang it on. I might be able to solve the problem, but it’s not going to build into the framework I need.

I’d genuinely rather read three books on a new topic than watch an hour video. I’ll have some sense of the topic after three books, where authors agree, where they disagree, etc.

I had a good experience with that recently - I’ve been reading more fiction than I generally have, and a few weeks ago, reading through a book, “And then she heard footsteps.” was a sentence that literally caused full body shivers - that’s a good clue you’re lost in a book. :slight_smile:

I recently spent 2 weeks at my mom’s, with a 5-6 hour flight there and back. A possible workaround is to download whatever it is you want to read and then kick the tablet into airplane mode and leave it that way. or dedicate a device to doing this. Hopefully the slightly increased friction of having to toggle it can act as a “no, don’t go there” guard.

The interesting bit is that battery life skyrockets. I think my Fire tablet used like 5% a day sitting in idle and reading 30-40 pages per night in airplane mode. Admittedly brightness was at minimum (reading in the dark), but still, that’s impressive standby times. Now that I’m home and it reconnected to the home wifi, it drains more like 10-15% a day.

Since being laid off in January, along with 12k others, I’ve found that I’m way more productive when I leave my phone in another room and just sit down and do the thing I’ve chosen to do (today: solder new anderson powerpoles onto that 12v solar panel to plug into my 23 lb, 1 kwh “suitcase” battery pack, then test it outside for an hour; 10% charge per hour @ 110-120 W, yay!)

There really is something to this adhd interrupt and constant device refreshing being horrible for productivity.

At what level of “Not engaging with long form literature” would you consider things to be “post-literate,” though? Because that’s what it means, as I understand it. The unwillingness rapidly leads to the inability.

When people stop reading long-form entirely. I have some friends that don’t read books at all. When that becomes the norm, we will indeed be in a post-literate world.

My point was more that, for example, I spend more time reading articles, watching foreign language content (as listening is more helpful than reading), playing chess on my computer, ect. whereas in the past that time might have been solely dedicated to reading books.

I’ve probably dipped from 2 books a month, to 6-ish books a year (not including technical ones). But in it’s place I’ve read more substack content, I’ve improved in chess, and I’ve learned to speak Spanish better.

I try to argue against reading on phones or tablets - because there’s too much other distraction available with near-zero friction

I went down this path, and circled back to reading on a tablet. Certainly there is more distraction, but the ability to highlight and write thoughts in books is awesome. Now my notes and highlights are right at my fingertips whenever I need them. Of course you can write and highlight physical books, but it’s a pain if you’re reading in bed or on a train.

I tend to bank books that are only available in print for the summer to read at the beach. Then I’ll transcribe my notes and highlights into my computer later.

This is another article I’ve chewed through recently that looks at what a post-literate political movement in the US would look like - and from the wisdom of another 2 years into the future, it looks like they got it pretty much right on. :confused:

I’ve also realized, recently, that I’ve finally re-trained myself to read fiction in… I guess I’d call it “properly”? I’ve generally not read much fiction for the past decade or so, other than an occasional treat between other books. I admit a long standing bias towards viewing fiction as “brain candy.” It’s wrong, but… that’s how I’ve viewed it. Anyway, deep into a paper series, I realized that I’m able to jump back into a setting in the novel much more quickly and, I suppose, “see the scene” instead of processing words about it. It’s a bit jarring to realize that I wasn’t doing that for a long while.

Just goes to show how our brains are quite neuroplastic, as Carr pointed out in The Shallows, and we’d better exercise those pathways we want to keep around!

I saw a copy of the Count of Monte Cristo at the thrift store - those old novels are absolute beasts of a book! It rivaled and probably surpassed a single volume version of the Lord of the Rings.

Longform reading is rapidly becoming a lost art and it shows.

(For those interested in typesetting a fun free read is found via memdesign.pdf along with memman.pdf - the memoir package for LaTeX)