Joe Clark: Unreadable

January 19, 2009 / The profound effect of the web on the way we read and write.

Joe Clark, in his piece “Unreadable” in Issue 1 of Scroll magazine, writes that the web is changing our ability to read long-form texts:

This desire to get in, get it over with and get out spills over into other forms of reading. Maybe you can just barely endure a quick flip through one section of a newspaper, but could you even read a book of short stories? I ‘read’ 200 books annually, yet even I barely manage to begin five fiction books a year; of those, I might finish one. I manage the other 200 books solely because the books can be skimmed over or simply flipped through, as though they were a fashion magazine.

He has a point, and I don’t think it’s just the medium (hypertext) that is causing this. For me graduate school had a similar effect on my ability to read novels—because of the demand to read so much (and I’m a slow reader) my reading habits changed so that it became common to read only fragments of a text. Even when I did, technically, read an entire book it wasn’t by starting at the first chapter and proceeding systematically to the last.

The fact that there is so much writing produced about very specialised topics is part of the problem. This is more about the political economy of higher education and status attainment than about the technology of reading. Information culture pervades daily life because utterable, sourced information has become the principle currency of various status economies that thrive in conditions of plenty.

But, and this is Clark’s point, the Internet facilitates this effect unlike any other mass medium. The web has transformed reading practice faster, and for more people, than film, radio or television and in world history it is at least as ubiquitous as any of those things, and potentially more so. The most provocative part of Clark’s argument then, is the claim that our collective behaviour may be destroying a cultural competency that many of us value.

Like I said, I think he has a point.

2 responses

  1. Michael

    Excellent points by both you and him. Of course, Bourdieu (who haunts your post) would suggest that it’s almost natural that as the skill becomes more rarefied then its power as a status marker would increase.

    January 28th, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

  2. Adrian Cooke

    Hmmm. Like being able to sing the Mass in Latin? Or like being an actuary? I wonder.

    January 28th, 2009 at 9:49 pm #

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