Sunday, 7 September 2008

On books and reading: how the internet is changing the culture....

I came across a great quote on the value of books the other day, by Bishop St Hugh of Lincoln (a twelfth century Carthusian). He said:

"Our books are our delight and our wealth in time of peace, our offensive and defensive arms in time of war, our food when we are hungry, and our medicine when we are sick."

It reminded me of a couple of articles about the effects of the internet and computers on the way we read and work that my brother alerted me to a while back, that basically argue that the internet is undermining serious reading and thus changing our culture drastically.

When I read those articles I was, at first, rather alarmed by the symptoms of reading disorder I could identify in myself.

But on further reflection I've realized that in some way what we are actually seeing may be a return to medieval ways of 'reading'. And that could actually be helpful.

Does the internet stop us really reading?

Is google making us stupid? basically argues that although we probably read a lot more today than we used to, courtesy of google and texting, we have become so used to reading in short bites only (like a blog post...) and 'power browsing' that we're losing the ability to read in depth, and absorb longer articles, let alone real books.

How we read, it argues, affects how we think. When we (really) read a printed page, we automatically make our own associations, and draw out our own ideas - we tend to think deeply. When we read on the internet on the other hand, we tend to follow links, look up associated ideas through google, and generally follow a quite different pattern of associations.

Couple that with the multi-tasking to which we have all become addicted, and we are arguably becoming less efficient, more distracted, and less able to contemplate.

How medieval people read

But it strikes me that in fact in many ways the internet is taking us back to medieval approaches to reading. The medieval period was predominantly an oral culture - books were, until the later middle ages, extremely expensive and so had to be shared.

Typically one person read out loud - over meals for monks, in churches, after dinner in middle and upper class homes - and others listened and remembered. Hearing the words provided the kind of 'background noise' of light reading that the internet delivers to most of us!

But the task of really reading for study or meditation purposes in those times was clearly physically hard work that you had to make specific time for. It wasn't just a case of pick up a paperback, sit back and relax!

The really interesting thing though, was that medieval readers essentially tried to memorize as they read, and by seeping themselves in their texts, became sort of living concordances. If you were writing a sermon, for example, you would typically take a sentence from the Gospel, and interpret its meaning by assembling the set of other texts that used the same words.

It seems to me that the internet is in many ways providing a virtual memory for us that mimics that kind of approach - we don't have to literally memorize texts because we can google on a word to find all the other uses of a concept, idea or term.

Reading becomes harder but...

The result of our usual distracted reading on the net may make real reading harder, just as it was in medieval times. St Benedict, for example, prescribed reading one book right through for each monk during Lent - with one or two of the senior monks making regular patrols to make sure they actually did it at the prescribed times!

But perhaps because reading required more effort, the books that were read were much more treasured and valued, as St Hugh of Lincoln 's comment above indicates.

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