When The Medium Matters

We’ve written before on the importance of reading over the summer as a way to mitigate the effects of summer learning loss.  We’ve also written on important organizations like Access Books that, in the battle to reduce the achievement gap, have given away over a million books to low-income students.  That’s why it’s good to see columnist David Brooks echo the importance of keeping students reading over the summer.

Brooks goes further, however, in expressing concern for the type of reading students are doing.  Jumping into the latest debate about what the internet is doing to our ability for deep, immersive focus, Brooks extends Nicholas Carr’s point in The Shallows , and worries that physical books may be necessary to a student’s conception of themselves as a reader:

It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested.  It’s the change in the way students see themselves as they build a home library.  They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

Brooks tries to get beyond the online reading versus book reading debate, contending that the medium is typically indicative of the type of reading a reader is doing.  Online reading is usually comprised of current events, news, entertainment, the topical and fleeting.  Books, on the other hand, build libraries and usually comprise classics, great and seminal texts that capture the essence of man and the human condition:

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the work of great writers and scholars.  Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom.  Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the internet has a very different experience.  The internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference…Internet culture is egalitarian…The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authoritarian disputation…

In other words, the medium matters, at least as insofar as it determines the ways readers conceive of themselves.  Brooks is distinguishing between outlooks: one outlook conceives of reading as social, as collaborative, and the text (and writer) as part of an ongoing and larger dialogue; the other outlook conceives of texts the continuation of a grand and important tradition and exhibits deference in the presence of the text.  One finds texts important for different purposes , but none more intrinsically important than any other; the other finds a respect for the canon a prerequisite for a high-minded, contemplative life.

This either/or makes a bit of a caricature of both sides.  It’s entirely possible to take a more pragmatic view and believe that the internet exposes us to many different voices – voices that have previously existed outside the margins of the cannon – but that the ‘work of great writers and scholars’ still play an important role in providing ‘lasting wisdom’.  Still, Brooks adds welcome nuance to the current debate on what the internet is doing to our capacity for deep and meaningful thought.  Read the whole thing.

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