The Reading Phenomenon
In the 21st century, reading from traditional print sources such as books, magazines and journals is in decline as more and more people get connected to the internet. Electronic sources such as eBooks, audio books and the countless web pages available are taking over the way we read, which in turn is affecting the way we learn and even how we think, some scholars argue.
Changing the Way we Read
When reading online, people tend to be more likely to scan the page rather that read it thoroughly and are much quicker to move on to something new as hyperlinks make it so easy to jump from one subject to the next. Paragraphs have become shorter and we are getting used to taking in bite-sizes of information, rather than in-depth discussions on subject matters or long fictional stories that books tend to offer.
According to a study from publishers ‘Jenkins Group Inc’, one third of graduates from American high schools will not read a book for the rest of their lives, for those graduating collage the figure raises to 42%. The source also claims that around 70% of adults in America do not regularly visit book stores and over half of new books bought are not read to completion. This trend is reflected in worldwide figures and book sales are dropping by nearly 20% per year.
It is no coincidence that at the same time, the sale in eBooks and downloadable audio books is increasing. Last year, sales of electronic texts rose by as much as 115% and have been increasing considerably year by year since the turn of the century, a trend that looks set to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
Negative Effects on the Human Intellect
With the decline of the book and other traditional paper texts, some experts are concerned that society itself is slowly degenerating as people are spending more and more time on trivial pastimes such as texting or playing computer games, and when they do read, they are increasingly more likely to do it through the internet. This can be argued to have a negative effect on the human intellect as society is losing the benefits book reading can bring.
Professor Susan Greenfield wrote in her book ‘ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century’, that getting information from an electronic screen instead of a printed text is actually changing the way our brains work. She argues that different areas of the brain are being stimulated by the new form of literacy and the parts of the brain that get stimulated by book reading are being used less and less; this in turn is altering the way people act and learn .
Nick Carr agrees and wrote in his essay, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ published in US-based Atlantic magazine;
“My concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle”.
He argues that internet writing tends to be shorter and less detailed, and the hyperlinks make it so tempting to jump to a new page and new subject that we only get an overview of a given topic at best, rather than ordered arguments or knowledge that can only be gleamed from consistent and focused reading on a subject. He also argues that people are generally reading less as so much time is spent checking status updates from social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
The Importance of Reading in Islamic Culture
Reading has been an important part of Islamic culture from its beginnings. From the Early Medieval period, libraries developed as a result of a clear recognition of the importance of literacy. Written texts were assembled in mosques, schools and research institutes throughout the Islamic world as books served both the spiritual and the scientific needs of the community. They made technological inquiry a feature of the period, while Europe found itself in a comparative ‘Dark Age’.
Institutes like the astronomical laboratory and translation centre founded in Bagdad in the early ninth century and the state library established in Cairo in the year 1004 both held a wealth of books. They were read by not only resident and visiting scholars, but were also open to the general public suggesting a high level of literacy amongst the local populations.
At the start of the modern period of world history, the printing press was invented and changed the way we read in a manor akin to the way it is changing today. Before the printing press, books had to be hand written individually so the number of copies available was limited. Far more information was suddenly available to far more people, and this, it can be argued, had only good ramifications.
Positive Effects on the Human Intellect
One of the first scientific books to go to print was the Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) which was attributed to the mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (d. 1039). It heavily influenced Renaissance thinkers in a way that would not have been possible before, as this and other works were now far more likely to be read. The internet, it can be argued, is having a similar effect on a larger scale as it is making it possible for anybody to read almost any text without even having to leave their home, and without having to own it in printed form.
Whether or not this new way to read and get information is detrimental or a progressive step in the development of the human intellect is a hotly debated topic. Some experts hypothesise that although it is changing the way we think, this is not necessarily a bad thing. According to journalist Bill Thompson,
“Today’s internet presents information in bite-sized chunks, linked together into a rich tapestry where the connections often carry as much meaning as the words themselves.”
Developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf argues in her book ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’, that reading is not natural but something that humans have learned to do. It therefore stands to reason, according to Wolf, that over time various forms of literacy will emerge along with new technologies. Reading itself as opposed to learning from oral lessons was criticised by the Greek philosopher Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus (360 BCE) he is reported to have said that the invention of writing can;
“Create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves……[It]is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”.
It is even claimed that the seventh century Christian Monk Bede was the first person to read without moving his lips. Although these things are impossible to verify, they serve to illustrate that popular reading is something that changed our brains and continues to do so, which ever form of it we use.
Using a mouse to move a cursor on a screen is no more learned behaviour than learning to read text. Today we only have to think of a piece of work, whether fact or fiction, and we can get it on screen with the click of a mouse. We can even pinpoint extracts from a given work and decide what to read and what not to, often saving time and effort on reading pages that might be irrelevant to our purpose. The internet may make people less likely to read complete works, but encourages an even more focused route to gaining information than other more traditional ways of reading.
Increasingly, the use of the internet within education is being seen as a necessity rather than a luxury suggesting educational institutes believe in the value of the new way of reading. In the classroom, the internet can take a previously heavy reading session on a given subject and turn it into an interactive, fun learning process for the students. Sites can be found that add colour, motion graphics and interaction with students from all over the world to engage both students and educators in the learning process.
While it is certainly true to say that the number of people reading books are in decline, this does not mean that people are reading less. The fact that they take in smaller bite-sized pieces of information likewise does not suggest that less actual information is being taken in. It is possible that the use of different brain functions that allows for a new type of learning that we are seeing with the development of new technologies have more advantages than disadvantages, many of which have not yet been fully discovered.
What is for sure is the new trend of reading electronic instead of printed texts looks set to continue and increase, and only time and a considerable amount of study into the effects will tell us if this is a positive or a negative thing for the development of the human brain and intellect.