Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 5 )

To read earlier posts in this series, click here.

One morning, on a brisk autumnal day in 2015, I drove myself to the hospital in Spokane Washington. My destination was the office of an expert psychiatrist, Dr. Zimmermann.

After parking my car and finding the appropriate building, I took a long elevator ride to the top of the hospital building where my psychiatrist evaluation would commence.

I had been told that Dr. Zimmermann might be able to help with some mental, emotional and physical problems I had developed earlier in the year. Still, I was a little nervous. I liked psychologists and professional counselors—warm-hearted people who listened to your problems with infinite patience. But I was nervous about psychiatrists, who I envisioned walking around in white coats dispensing prescription drugs that merely masked over people’s real problems. Did Dr. Zimmermann fit the stereotype? I would find out in a few minutes.

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The Most Important 10 Minutes of Your Life

Christian meditationThose who follow my blog know that I go through stages of posting about different subjects. Last year I wrote a lot about gratitude and positive thinking. Then I began posting about mindfulness. Recently I’m writing about the role struggle plays in the Christian life. These three themes are actually all related. Here’s why.

To develop the skill of gratitude, you need to practice mindfulness/watchfulness to retrain your brain to move from the negative to the positive, from anxiety to peace. But in order to get really good at mindfulness, you need to struggle. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, let alone gratitude and mindfulness. In my article ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice’ I outlined six specific ways a person can struggle to become more positive and at peace. I’d like to take the opportunity now to expand on this and give a specific exercises you can do to become more mindful, more grateful and more at peace with yourself and the world.

But before I begin, I just want to say one more time: gratitude and inner-peace are not gifts. That is, they aren’t personality traits that you’ve either been given or deprived of. Rather, gratitude and inner-peace are skills that can be developed with practice. Today I’m going to explain how you can begin practicing these skills right now. The exercise I’m going to present only takes 10 minutes each day, yet it has the potential to transform your life.

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Kickstart Campaign to Finance My New Book

For over a decade I’ve worked as a freelance writer for a variety of publications. Now that I’ve reached midlife and look back over my career, the three themes that stand out as being the most significant are (1) gratitude (2) attentiveness (3) being human.

I am hoping to pull together some of my writings on these topics and self-publish them in a book of essays. In addition to organizing my past writings for this book, I will also conduct fresh research for some new essays on these important topics.

In order to make this project a reality, I need significant funding. Quite simply, the more funds I’m able to raise, the more time I’ll be able to afford to work on this project. If I’m successful in raising the amount of money required, Kickstart will release the funds to me after a 45-day campaign. However, if I fall short of raising the necessary funds, all the money will be returned to the contributors. Kickstart has the mechanisms on their website for facilitating these transfers with financial accountability.

If you would like to be involved in helping to support this project, here are some things you can do:

  1. Visit my Kickstart campaign and consider pledging $20 or more.
  2. During the next 45 days, periodically visit my personal Facebook page and my public fan page and whenever I post something about this project, click “like” and “share.”
  3. If you have been blessed by my writings, then please write a few sentences on your Facebook page saying something positive about my work and including a link to my Kickstart campaign.
  4. Repeat step #3 at least four times during the next 45 days.

Thank you for your support!

Click on the following link to go to the webpage for my Kickstart campaign:

Being Grateful, Being Attentive, Being Human

Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)

I began this series in 2013 after reading Steve Wasserman’s comments in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of newspapers across the country, the erosion of book reading following the rise of the internet, and the shocking lack of coverage this crisis is receiving in the national media. I quoted Wasserman’s observation that “the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

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Reading Books and Reading People

From ‘Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)’:

Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.

Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.

Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers once commented that “Indifference or indolence concerning reading is the occasion for many losses: a loss of capacity for sustained argument, for narrative engagement, for personal sympathy, and for the opportunity to lose oneself and then find oneself, in words.”

This observation is not new, as most thinking people recognize that the decline of reading has been concomitant with the loss of ability to produce and follow sustained argument and narrative engagement. However, what is less familiar is Myers’ contention that personal sympathy has also been one of the casualties in the decline of attentive reading.

Think about it. When we read books, especially quality fiction, we empathize with the characters in the book so that their experiences become our experiences. We enter into a world very different from our own but which, through imagination, begins to feel just as real as our world.

In my earlier article ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith’ I shared a study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory which found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.

In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.

Communicating with People

For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.

To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or ‘This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?’ Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.

John Gottman described this type of listening when discussing communication among spouses in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fall,

“Nondefensive listening doesn’t mean you need to agree with your partner. Your mission is to try to understand your partner’s feelings—to accept them as legitimate even if you don’t share them. If you can send the message, “Gee, I don’t see it that way, but I can understand why you might, given your perspective,” you will have gone a long way toward repairing the damage of previous negativity. The highest level of nondefensive listening entails empathizing with your partner’s emotions and viewpoint. That means putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes and truly comprehending his or her feelings from within yourself.”

In other words, healthy relationships require patient attentiveness. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient attentiveness.

A Culture of Instant Gratification

The general loss of attentiveness in our culture affects the set of expectations we bring to relationships, eroding our ability to empathize in the way described in the last section. From fast food, to instant messages to immediate downloads, immediate gratification has become the norm. This makes patient and attentive listening a cognitively unnatural activity. Instead our brain enters into a condition that some researchers have described as “continuous partial attention.” The result is that our listening skills become significantly atrophied.

Media such as the i-touch, the i-phone, the android and even the internet itself, encourage distractedness, impatience and the kind of hurried and scattered focus that finds attentiveness to anything—including people we love—laborious and boring.

In my Touchstone article ‘Scripture in the Age of Google’, I described some of the specific ways that being online encourages us to be constantly distracted from one thing to the next:

“From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information. In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

The truth of these observations was impressed upon me earlier in the year when a friend told me that he was increasingly finding that the only ideas people will take seriously are those which can be packaged into a text message. I don’t do text messaging (I’ve only sent 3 texts in my whole life), but I have found the same thing when writing emails. When I was a boy I would correspond with a number of different pen pals, and we would normally exchange letters that were eight or nine pages, sometimes even longer. Now I frequently have people telling me that my emails are too long for them to read because their eyes glazed over after the second page.

It isn’t that people are busier now than they were before. We seem to have more time to watch television and play on the computer and browse the internet than ever before. But what we don’t seem to have time for is the type of sustained attentiveness I am talking about. We can have numerous simultaneous conversations on the computer without any apparent difficulty, yet find it incredibly difficult to have just one conversation if it requires prolonged attentiveness and patience.

Building on McLuhan’s insight that “The medium is the message”, we might say that the medium of text messaging, Facebook, instant messaging services and even email, favors communication that is bitty, disconnected and transitory. When the ‘message’ of these media spill out of their immediate context into face to face dialogue, what we find is the hegemony of the unconscious expectation that communication should be quick and fragmentary.

The paradox, of course, is that our digital devices make us constantly available for communication. We are available but not attentive, present but strangely detached from one another.

Reading Books and Reading People

Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.

Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.

Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”

Treating People as Objects

As our emotional intelligence is atrophied, we stop being able to read people. We may even treat people like objects rather than being attentive to them as persons. This can be seen in the normalization of various forms of semi-nudity that have become standard in our culture. A study by Princeton psychologists found that when men are shown pictures of a woman wearing a bikini, the region of the brain associated with tools and first-person action verbs lights up. “And in a ‘shocking’ finding,” the National Geographic reported, “some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another’s intentions.” Lead researcher Susan Fiske commented, “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”

The study had some methodological problems, but I suspect that more rigorous future studies will point in the same direction, namely that the mainstreaming of immodesty is correlate, and perhaps partially causative, to men being unable to view women as persons. Our passive assent to a culture that implicitly pressures women to undress in front of men is the natural correlate to our loss of empathy and compassion. For a man to be interested in a woman as a person is to be interested in knowing what she is thinking, in seeing reality from her perspective. To see a woman as a person is to try to empathize with how she is feeling, to be able to imaginatively identify with her experiences.

If the bikini seems to invite men to bypass a woman’s mind in approaching her body, the internet seems to invite us to bypass the body in approaching the mind. What is lost in both cases is engagement with the whole person.

Flesh and Blood Relationships

The lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. As Michael Heim warned back in his 1994 book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,

“Today’s computer communication cuts the physical face out of the communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind monitors, headsets and datastuits… The living non-representable face is the primal source of reasonability, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long-term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated communities have not yet been tested.”

In its most extreme manifestation, the preference for disembodied relationships finds expression in men who do not even want to have sex since virtual girlfriends can satisfy all their needs. Even in less extreme forms, however, the ubiquity of virtual communication is making it hard to be attentive to real flesh-and-blood relationships.

The really scary thing is that the more time we spend in front of the computer, the more our brain structures change so that we become unable to relate to real flesh-and-blood people. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan explain in their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,

“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A Standford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly thirty minutes. With the weakening of the brain’s neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages.”

In future articles in this ongoing series on attentiveness I hope to continue the discussion about specific ways that our digital devises are changing our view of community and ourselves.

 

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In my earlier post on attentiveness, I lamented the decline in book reading that has become a regular feature of contemporary life.

Most people realize that reading is in decline, as distractions like the i-phone, Facebook and text messaging assert their hegemony over our mental spaces. Professor Katherine Hayles, who teaches English at Duke University, expressed the concerns of many when she confessed, “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.” When English graduates don’t even like to read anymore, you know things are getting serious.

What has bypassed most people, however, is that the main reading problem we face as a society is not simply that people aren’t reading enough; rather, the real problem is how we read. Increasingly, we find that when people pick up a book, they often come to it with the same set of expectations they bring to the internet. Activities like Facebook and Twitter exert their dominion over our minds precisely because they condition us with a certain set of expectations that become ubiquitous and which remain with us even when our computer or i-phone is turned off.

More specifically, our constant saturation in digital distractions is training us to be satisfied with triviality, to be content with dialogue that is shallow, brief and disconnected. In short, we begin to expect books to give us the same buzz that an i-phone provides, and when it doesn’t we quickly get bored.

One result of this is that the actual process of reading has undergone a shift. A study in 2008 by the group nGenera looked at the effect of the internet on the young.  They interviewed six thousand children who had grown up using the internet. The Lead researcher wrote that “Digital immersion has even affected the way they absorb information. They don’t necessarily read a page from left or right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest.” The thing that made this study so alarming was that it showed that the way we read webpages—skipping around, scanning, getting the information we need and then moving on to something else—is affecting our thought life even when we are not at the computer.

The internet is literally re-wiring our brains, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the type of thoughtful interplay between author and reader that gives book-reading its unique quality. When we do read books, it is becoming typical to take frequent breaks to check our phone for messages or to go on Facebook to see what our friends are doing. Indeed, everything about our digital distractions militates against the experience of patient attentiveness.

If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself or your friends the following questions.

  • Do you find books boring if they do not give you the same fix that things like text messaging and IM provide?
  • Do you find it hard to have a meal, or a long conversation with someone, without feeling compelled to check your messages in the middle?
  • If someone challenges you about your use of social media like Facebook and text messaging, do you feel defensive and find it difficult to engage in a rational conversation about it?
  • When you sit down to read a book, do you find yourself skipping and scanning for relevant information like you would do on a webpage?

The internet is hallowing out our habits of attention because our brains are coming to crave the type of triviality that the internet breeds and feeds. The algorithms that Google uses to prioritize search results and which are being replicated by social media sites like Facebook, are specifically designed to privilege information that is current over what is enduring. Consequently, it’s easy to let ourselves be trained into thinking that what is important is not what is enduring but what is current, fresh, up-to-date and transitory. Indeed, if we are not careful, things like text messages, comments on blogs and emails begin to exert more primacy over our minds than the books which point us away from the tyranny of the present to the stability of the past. (I discuss this further in my earlier article, ‘The Worldview of Facebook.’)

This doesn’t mean that the internet is bad, or that you shouldn’t use the internet to read good articles, such as the articles on this website. But we should try to learn how to use the internet in a way that doesn’t hollow out our habits of attentiveness. The Taylor Study Method recently published an incredibly helpful series of posts giving some practical steps on how to use the internet in a way that doesn’t detrimentally alter your brain. One of the main things they emphasize is the importance that we remain aware of the challenges we face in our digital age.

Again, the real challenges brought by the internet are easily overlooked, since it has nothing to do with what actually happens when we are engaged in activities web-surfing, Facebook or Twitter, but what happens when we are not engaged in these activities. Just as the problems caused by pornography sometimes only become evident when a man tries to have a relationship with a real woman, so the problems caused by social media may only become evident when one actually tries to read a book or engage in a normal conversation.

I was at a party last year where I was talking to a teenager, and a couple minutes into our conversation he began checking and reading his email on his phone. I was shocked by the rudeness of his behavior, and even more shocked when subsequent experience confirmed that this type of behavior is no longer even considered disrespectful. Since then I have angered people because I asked them to wait until we had finished our conversation before they started using their laptops to go online.

As our attention spans are being hollowed out, fewer and fewer people still read books for the sheer pleasure of doing so. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan wrote in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind:

“Young people have created their own digital social networks, including a shorthand type of language for text messaging, and studies show that fewer young adults read books for pleasure now than in any generation before them…. After all, why spend time staring at a dull and stagnant string of words when they could be entertained and informed with fast-paced visual and auditory computer images instead?”

Not everyone avoids books because they prefer to be entertained. For many, books are avoided because they are perceived to be an inefficient use of time. In an age that tends to value efficiency above all else, our paradigm for learning tends to be based (often unconsciously) on the model of factory production in which everything has to have measurable benefits. Taking 20 minutes every morning to read from a book has enormous benefits, but they are not measureable. Thus, many people in the younger generation have concluded that it is better to save time by getting quickly getting the information one needs of the internet and then going on to the next thing. This was reflected in the all-too typical statement of a young man named Joe O’Shea, former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. O’Shea said, “I don’t read books. I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” He continued: “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”

Maybe we can get the information faster on the web, but what is being lost is the type of enlargement of being that only books can offer. Through reading we are able to expand our souls beyond our own limitations and connect with the thoughts and feelings of others. Sadly, however, the current bestsellers suggest that this is not why people are reading books: the proliferation of self-help books, biographies of famous people and fiction that is pure escapism suggests that the majority no longer reads to cultivate the imagination or improve the mind.

In a society that values efficiency over depth and productivity over quality, it is becoming increasingly hard to let books work their slow and strange magic on us, to let them change us into richer and deeper people. Reading soul-enlarging old books becomes one of the chief casualties in this cultural shift to prioritize what is functional over what is beautiful, what is transitory over that which is permanent and what is entertaining over what is enriching.

The ramifications of a loss in quiet attentiveness also affect the set of expectations we bring to relationships, and our ability to empathize with those we love. But that will be the topic of a future post in this series.

 

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In January 2009, the Washington Post announced that it would be dropping the stand-alone Book World section of the paper’s Sunday edition. Book World had been created in the 1960s and was one of the few remaining stand-alone sections for book reviews in American newspapers.

The trend had been in process for the preceding decade. In 2000, Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, commented, “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer.”

A few months after McGrath penned these words, the San Francisco Chronicle decided it would no longer be publishing its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage, which had been based on the understanding that books are newsworthy. The Chronicle had to reintroduce the Datebook after protests from book lovers, but eventually reduced it to just four pages.

In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. They Globe’s decision was followed by numerous other newspapers expunging their long-standing tradition of offering serious book reviews.

In 2007, Steve Wasserman reflected over the developments of the previous seven years in a fascinating article for the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commented that

“Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely.”

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.”

“Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week.… In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on the newspapers for dropping their separate book review sections. Newspapers, like any business, need to make money to survive, and that means giving customers what they want. The American public has gradually lost the interest it once had in reading, and hence in book reviews. This was confirmed by statistics released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which Wasserman cited in his article:

“In June 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twenty years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play, or poem.”

Why are so many people choosing not to read? Have people changed? Not really. In the eighteenth-century Samuel Johnson noted that “People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Although it has always been a problem that people will not read if they can be amused, throughout most of human history people have not had immediate access to amusing things, and so they read. This was especially true in America in the mid nineteenth-century, which I am told was the height of any reading culture in the history of the world.

Things have changed since then, and now anyone can have an internet connection in their pocket and instantly access an unlimited array of amusing things.

Wasserman hinted at these shifts when he pointed to “the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization… Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to.”

He went on to observe that

“the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

“These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed.”

Wasserman’s observation that our visually furious culture is “hollowing out the habits of attention” remains central to understanding the decline in book reading. To truly appreciate a book requires many skills beyond mere literacy, including habits of attentiveness that seem to be under assault by so many different aspects of contemporary life.

As our habits of attentiveness are increasingly eroded, the interest in books and book reviews is lost. Yet I hope to show in future posts that much more is lost than simply an interest in books the disciplines necessary for reading them. What is also eroded is a richness of soul, a sensitive imagination and the type of listening skills that are necessary for healthy relationships.