If you’re like me, you make a plan to go to sleep at a reasonable hour only to find that it’s 3:30 a.m. and you’re in bed reading articles on your phone, about topics ranging from racially motivated inequality to why writers like to stay hush about their sources of income, to Taylor Swift’s rumored lack of a belly button. Then you wake up, a few or many hours later, and don’t remember a single thing you read.
On average, I read about 20 articles a day, none of which I actively seek out on my own. My friend sends me an article on the cultural appropriation of ghee, and another link on that page leads me to another link on another page, and suddenly I am on a long essay about the history of the British East India Company, which leads me to an article on the history of jewelry trading, aka looting. On the subway I read books on my iPhone, and when I get service the plot of those books get mixed in with the plot of my life, so to speak. Was it Poirot who didn’t want to go to the dentist, or my friend Becky?
In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote an article in the Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—that became famous enough to merit its own Wikipedia page—in which he argues that the abundance of information that the internet provides is diminishing our abilities to actually comprehend what we read. Every article written about the article that I found mentioned this particular quote: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Perhaps the reason Carr had to discard his flippers is because the sea just got too big and too populated for him to actually see anything. When you encounter so many sentences a day, even if they are well constructed, intelligent, and seemingly memorable, how do you actually remember one intelligent thought when a thousand others are clamoring for your attention?
A UC San Diego report published in 2009 suggests the average American’s eyes cross 100,500 words a day—text messages, emails, social media, subtitles, advertisements—and that was in 2008. Data collected by the marketing company Likehack tells us that the average social media user “reads”—or perhaps just clicks on—285 pieces of content daily, an estimated 54,000 words. If it is true, then we are reading a novel slightly longer than The Great Gatsby every day.
Of course, the word “read” is rather diluted in this instance. You can peruse or you can skim, and it’s still reading. I spoke with writer and avid reader John Sherman about his online reading habits. “Sometimes, when I say I read an article,” said Sherman, “what I actually mean is I read a tweet about that article.” He is hardly alone in this. Using information collected from the data analysis firm Chartbeat, Fahrad Manjoo writes at Slate that there is a very poor correlation between how far a reader scrolls down in an article and when he or she shares the article on Twitter. In fact, people are more likely to tweet a link to an article if they have not read it fully. “There is so much content out there, capital c, and a lot of it overlaps,” Sherman said. “It takes less time to respond to an idea than a complete argument.”
It takes even less time to respond to an idea or argument with somebody else’s article. Have you read this? No, but that’s like what I read in this other piece. Perhaps nothing depicts this exchange better than a particular Portlandia skit, in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein rat-a-tat back and forth about what they’ve read, begin tearing the pages out of a magazine and stuffing them in their mouths, and when they run across the street to lunge for a Yellow Pages, they get hit by a car. “Hey, can’t you read?” yells the driver.
Reading is a nuanced word, but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the Internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it “sticks.”
My natural inclination towards doomsday predictions makes me think of a quote from One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which the town of Macondo has been hit by a plague in which its residents forget the names of all the people and objects they interact with. Even when they write reminders, such as labeling a cow with a note reading “cow,” they forget the purpose of the cow. “Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.”
It strikes me as odd that I could remember a passage from a book I had read eight years ago, but not the argument a writer made about ISIS in an article I read last week. A little research on e-books puts my doomsday predictions of a society no longer able to read at rest, because while e-books have reduced the amount of print books we see, they have not reduced the amount of books actually being read. In fact, according to a Pew report comparing the habits of e-book readers verses print readers in 2011, the average e-book reader reads 24 books over the course of the year while the average print reader stops at 15.
If e-book users read more, is there a chance they retain more information? According to a study by Erik Wästlund of Karlstad University in Sweden, they do not. Wästlund rounded up 82 volunteers to take a reading comprehension test. Both the tests were online, but one group read a paginated document while the other read a continuous scroll. After the tests, each student was presented with short-term memory tests, in which they had to recall the sequence of digits that flashed on a screen or sort cards in the order they were presented. While participants from both groups performed equally well on the reading comprehension test, the ones that scrolled continuously did worse on the attention and memory exercises. According to Wastlund, scrolling “took a lot of mental resources that could have been spent comprehending the text [enough to memorize it] instead.”
When we scroll, our eyes tend to move in the shape of the letter “F.” Research by Danish web usability consultant Jakob Nielson states that when people read on the internet, their eye movements first move all the way across the page, then only halfway across the page as they scroll further down, until their eyes are barely crossing the page at all. Many websites have been optimized to accommodate this “F” pattern, which, when you think about it, is about half of the actual text.
People are more likely to tweet a link to an article if they have not read it fully.
In Time, Maia Szalavitz writes that the landscape of a text—most pronounced in paper books—is crucial to how we remember what we read. Being able to navigate back to an exact moment in a book is easier when you can recall its page number, or the weight of the pages on your right hand versus your left, or how far up on the side of the page you recall the particular lines being. If you were to read a print book in the same F-shaped way you read an article online, you might miss a crucial plot detail or a particularly beautiful flourish of language.
Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is exactly the kind of book one might miss a such a flourish. The novel has spent 48 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. The chapters are extremely short, lasting three pages at the most, which gives the reader (this reader, at least) the feeling that the story is moving very fast. (Doerr is a contributing writer for this magazine.) In an interview with Powell’s bookstore, Doerr said, “My prose can be dense. I love to pile on detail. I love to describe…I know that’s demanding, so this was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’”
In other words, beautiful writing requires a patience that modern readers, perhaps, are not accustomed to allotting to words
Reading is a multi-headed beast. How a person chooses to read a text is perhaps not a great basis for nose-turning judgment, but it’s possible that streamlined scrolling of browsers and e-books, as opposed to reading on paper, can lead to what psychologists call “the misinformation effect.” Meghan Salomon, a researcher at Northwestern University, described this to me as a phenomenon in which people take in information that they know to be false, but use that information later anyway.
In Salomon’s study, student volunteers are asked to read texts that are heavy with common knowledge statements, such as “the Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean” and “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb,” but the texts were also populated with purposefully incorrect statements, such as “the Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean” and “Ben Franklin invented the light bulb.” Similar to the Wästlund study, volunteers were then asked to take memory tests, in which they were quizzed about the facts mentioned in the text. About 20 to 30 percent of the time, volunteers answered the common knowledge questions about the largest ocean and the inventor of the light bulb incorrectly. Keep in mind these participants are students from one of the country’s top 20 universities.
“This is especially bad news considering the ‘retweet’ button is so temptingly close,” said Salomon. “It’s not uncommon for us to easily and quickly disseminate information that we ourselves haven’t even critically evaluated.”
The only times the participants of Salomon’s study caught their mistakes was when they were given red pens with which they could make edits in the text. It shouldn’t be such a surprise, then, that digital natives—students who grew up with laptops in classrooms—at American University are beginning to show a preference for reading books in print. They cite the ability to make notes in margins, to fold page corners. College junior Cooper Nordquist tells the Washington Post: “I can’t imagine reading Tocqueville or understanding him electronically.”
Several Pew studies referred to in The Washington Post article show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers. “I like the feeling of [a print book],” student Frank Schembari tells the Post in the same article, while reading in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”
Let’s talk about me; let’s talk about us, as in this publication, The Morning News (TMN). (Naturally, for digital readers and social media users like us, there is no other place to land.)
As a junior editor, by 5 a.m. every weekday for almost 18 months, I submitted five—and sometimes 16—news articles, summarized in a succinct sentence or two, to contribute to this website’s sidebar of daily headlines. I remember working on these headlines when a friend came over to my empty apartment with a bottle of rosé, to celebrate my first place in New York City. I remember working on them in the bottom bunk of a hostel bed in Milan, but only because my friend took a photo of me at that moment. At the time I found these articles so fascinating—how could I ever forget this planetary explosion or that particular horsemeat scandal? Yet I did.
According to Salomon, this could be because I read all this information from the same sources. While I searched the internet far and wide for good headlines, I came to rely on a few websites to never fail me: the BBC, Slate, Andrew Sullivan’s now-defunct The Dish, Aeon Magazine, the Guardian, and more. I also read a lot of articles through my RSS reader, instead of a particular website, which gave them all the same green border and cream background.
Reading can often be context-specific. Meaning we have a better chance of remembering certain moments when we are in the place in which those moments happened. Perhaps if I were to go back to that hostel room in Milan, I’d remember reading about an archeological finding that the Ancient Egyptians preferred fornicating in the summer. It may be harder for me to remember the articles I read in my apartment or on my phone, because I either read too many articles in one place or too many articles in too many different places. This might be why so many journalists, at least the ones I spoke to for this article and myself, cannot always recall what it was they read or wrote about in their offices or favorite coffee shops or apartments, where they are constantly reading and writing about what they read.
“It’s not uncommon for us to easily and quickly disseminate information that we ourselves haven’t even critically evaluated.”
I asked TMN co-founder Andrew Womack, who has been doing headlines for our sidebar since 2000, if he can remember any articles that stuck out to him. “Nothing that I could say with certainly was in any way related to our headlines,” he said. “There are articles and posts I’ve read online that have stuck with me, though. Daniel Radosh’s Star Wars spoof on Modern Humorist. Leslie Harpold’s record player of your life. What I remember most is the writing itself. The way something is phrased. The more I hear about it won’t embed it in my memory.”
Reading the fragment “the way something is phrased” immediately made me think of a title I saw on The Hairpin a while ago. It was a review of n+1’s MFA vs. NYC, titled “False Dichotomy vs. Who Cares.” It stuck with me because at the time, I was subconsciously worried that those were the only two options for a writer, and thought it dreadfully narrow. I didn’t realize how much it bothered me until I saw that title and laughed out loud.
The memories of what I—perhaps we—have read, online and in print, seem to me to exist as dots scattered over an algebraic plane, with the down scroll of the internet as the y axis and the right-to-left motion as the x. There are ways to figure out what they are by how they connect, but the formulas might be overly complicated and possibly a waste of time. Nicholas Carr writes that in the world of Google and our infinite stores of information, “Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.” It’s ambiguous, but we might have to just trust that we remember the things we remember for a reason—and when we don’t, it might come back to surprise us. “When it is worth remembering,” Womack told me, “you remember it whether you intend to or not.”
I don’t believe we are headed to time when reading becomes a purely shallow activity. Clary Shirky, a critic of Carr, writes: “Having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace…. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.”
Whether you read about the brutal looting of Indian gems by the East India Company in a historical book or on a review of that book online, if the material presented is interesting to you, you’ll probably remember it, albeit with different levels of accuracy. Knowledge, whatever medium you acquire it through, has value.
“Recent work has shown that students who take notes in a notebook in a class as compared to a computer end up with better test scores for that class,” said Salomon. “This could occur for myriad reasons, from lack of attention to lack of engagement, but there’s room to argue that processing differences occur in these sorts of situations. When you’re in ‘real life,’ sitting in your classroom, it’s rather natural to just transcribe what you’re hearing into a notebook. However, when you’re using a computer, you have to ‘leave’ the classroom around you to focus on the computer screen. Going from ‘real life’ to technology may be similar to shifting from one room to another.”
Following this model of rooms, if you remember something you learned online in the time you spend away from your devices, it probably connects to an issue that is of particular interest to you. While a concentrated effort to remember what you read in that article last week about Narendra Modi might yield no results, a pinstriped suit you see someone wearing on the subway could make you suddenly recall that the subject of the article was a suit Modi wore that had his own name written on it a thousand times.
Perhaps you will not even vaguely remember this article after you take your eyes off your laptop, phone, or tablet. I’m not offended. Unlike an article that leaves you with a vivid image in your head (like Narendra Modi’s suit), all I’ve left for you are perfectly average images of yourself and other people reading. But if I can’t make you remember this article with an image, let me try to do it with a reference. Online reading takes place in a certain room—not entirely of one’s own.