By GEORGE F. WILL
Long before today’s coronavirus lockdown provided occasions for the vice that the phrase denotes, “binge watching” had entered Americans’ lexicon. Few, however, speak of binge reading. To understand why this is regrettable, mute Netflix long enough to read Adam Garfinkle’s “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” in National Affairs. He believes that because of the displacement of reading by digital, usually pictorial, entertainment and communication, “something neurophysiological” is happening to individuals, and especially to the “neural pathways” of the young. And something vital to democratic culture is waning.
Garfinkle, founding editor of the American Interest, elaborates on Maryanne Wolf’s idea of “deep literacy” from her 2018 book “Reader, Come Home.” Garfinkle defines this (or “deep reading”) as engagement with “an extended piece of writing” in a way that draws the reader into “a dialectical process with the text.” This involves the reader in anticipation of the author’s “direction and meaning.”
Few scientists doubt that heavy dependency on electronic screens has shortened attention spans. “We know,” Garfinkle says, “that prolonged and repetitive exposure to digital devices changes the way we think and behave in part because it changes us physically.”
The brain is continuously rewiring itself in response to changing stimuli, and 200,000 years of evolution did not suit it to process today’s torrents of fleeting stimuli.
“More items vie for our attention in a given hour,” Garfinkle says, “than our ancestors had to handle in a day or even a week.” Becoming comfortable with shallow attention to everything, people become transfixed by the present, unable to remember, or to plan well. He reports that high school guidance counselors say most students lack the social skills to speak one-on-one with college admissions personnel. This, Garfinkle believes, reflects “acquired social autism.”
People immersed in digital torrents acquire “self-inflicted attention deficits.” They become incapable of the “quality attention” that deep literacy requires. Such literacy is, in evolutionary terms, a recent innovation that changed brain circuitry. Garfinkle says, “We are or become, cognitively speaking, what we do with language.” Printed words, presented sequentially in sentences and paragraphs, are demanding, but rewarding: Only they can present the reasoning required to establish complicated truths.
Garfinkle’s surmise is that government’s problem-solving failures reflect not just hyper-partisanship and polarization but the thin thinking of a political class of non-deep readers who are comfortable only with the shallowness of tweets. Instantaneous digital interactions encourage superficiality, insularity and tribalism.
Deep reading, like deep writing, is difficult, hence unnatural. It is unpleasant to those who, tethered to their devices, have become accustomed to lives that are surface straight through. Garfinkle worries that “cognitively sped-up and multitasking young brains may not acquire sufficient capacities for critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, and hence will become easy prey for charlatans and demagogues.”
Modernity’s greatest blessing — individualism: the celebration of individual agency — depends on a sense of one’s interior, of self-consciousness. This is facilitated by deep literacy that, unlike the oral communication of premodern groups, requires solitude for the reader’s private repose. Modernity, and eventually democracy, advanced through Protestantism’s emphasis of individual engagement with writing — the Bible made accessible to personal reading in various languages.
Integral to liberal-democratic politics are, Garfinkle says, abstract ideas — “representation; the virtues of doubt, dissent, and humility; and the concept of a depersonalized constitutional order.” A society that loses the ballast of deep literacy is apt to become less thoughtful, more emotional and volatile. It will become impatient with the pace of refined, impersonal governance through institutions. It will seek “a less abstract, re-personalized form of social and political authority concentrated in a ‘great’ authoritarian leader.”
Deep literacy has always been a minority taste and attainment, but is always necessary, especially among elites, to leaven majoritarian politics. But because of today’s social-media technologies, Garfinkle believes, there is increased, if superficial and emotive, participation in political discourse. Yet even among young people in higher education, many professors will not assign entire books, or substantial portions of challenging ones.
Deep readers can “deploy shields of skepticism” against those who, lacking the reading habit, are “locked in perpetual intellectual adolescence.” And then? “Populism of the illiberal nationalist kind is,” Garfinkle believes, “what happens in a mass-electoral democracy when a decisive percentage of mobilized voters drops below a deep-literacy standard.”
Garfinkle’s essay — mental calisthenics for a confined nation — deserves at least the grudging gratitude of even the most egalitarian Americans. It requires what it describes — deep literacy — and might be a spur to binge reading.