1 More Reason Not to Read

Adam Gopnik, in a recent offering to The New Yorker, does what computational neuroscientist Douglas Hofstadter calls jootsing—jumping outside of the system—in discussing a slew of books on new media and communication technology. In a brilliant move, he takes a step up and away from the books and tries to see them from a broader perspective rather than simply engaging with each in turn. He groups the authors according to their stances toward the revolution as Never-Betters, Ever-Wasers (what revolution?), and Better-Nevers. I am a Never-Better with qualifications. And this is the group Gopnik dismisses with the least ceremony. The optimistic view, “has its excitements,” he writes, “but the history it uses seems to have been taken from the back of a cereal box.” The Never-Betters have a habit of citing how the invention of printing represented a sudden major leap forward to the Enlightenment. But, according to Gopnik, “The idea… that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth” (125). Tyrants and despots were among the first to use the new technology to its fullest potential. Voltaire didn’t come along for another two centuries. On the other hand, today we can cite Tahrir Square.

I like the idea of a “global psyche” (126) some of the more sophisticated Never-Betters put forth because it meshes well with the group mind concept I come away with after reading books by David Sloan Wilson. We can increase the computing power of our minds exponentially by connecting them with other minds. However, this group model suffers the same problem in terms of cognition as it does in those of adaptation—there’s always the threat of selfish free-riders who detract from the adaptiveness of the higher-order organism. I’m afraid there are as of yet far from adequate mechanisms in place to punish propagandists and users who don’t contribute. Even though a group of cooperative minds is vastly superior to any one mind, the group mind suffers dramatically as the quality of the individual brains constituting it deliquesces into narcissistic muck. M.T. Andersen’s novel Feed provides an all-too-recognizable dystopian vision of what the unchecked ascent of marketing can do if the consumerist ethos continues its ruthless campaign against discipline and compassion.

And this is where I begin to sympathize with the Better-Nevers, though I agree with the Ever-Wasers that there have always been old fogies like me grinding their teeth at night about wayward generation nexters (generation text?). Gopnik pulls off the feat of quoting Nicholas Carr, who calls the internet, and his book, The Shallows, at once both warmly and condescendingly to the effect that being online doesn’t draw the same intensity of concentration as reading does. “The medium does matter” (127), Carr insists. (I haven’t read his book yet.) Communication technology also separates us from the flesh-and-blood humans whose avatars we’re communicating with, a phenomenon Sherry Turkle captures in her own wonderful title, Alone Together. It is in discussing these Better-Nevers’ concerns that Gopnik starts to piss me off a bit. After casually referring to research that shows technological multi-tasking does indeed have deleterious effects on people’s capacity for concentration and abstract thinking, to surveys showing an alarming decline in college students self-assessments of empathy, and to research linking this decline to the coterminous decline in the reading of fiction, Gopnik waves it all away in a single sentence: “But if reading a lot of novels gave you exceptional empathy university English departments should be filled with the most compassionate and generous-minded of souls, and, so far, they are not” (128).

This breezy dismissal pisses me off because distracting us from the research doesn’t change the findings. It also pisses me off because Gopnik is right about English departments (though not, I must admit, about the one in which I study, where all the professors are exceptionally generous and open-minded). He’s has, in fact, unwittingly stumbled upon a driving force behind the decline in reading independent of technology and consumerism—the scholarly black hole that is Literary Theory (or Theory as it functions in the Humanities in general). As far back as seventh grade I remember being annoyed at how my Lit. teacher, Mrs. Kalb, seemed to want to treat stories and novels as if they were algebraic equations (New Criticism), and this would only get worse as I got further in my education. It wasn’t that I minded close reading; it was that this heightened attention to the details was in the service of a much too mechanistic analysis of the “text,” which became a type of coded message instead of a story.

As an undergrad, my Shakespeare teacher (at Purdue) was refreshingly atheoretical—though looking back I remember him pushing some bizarre Freudian readings of “Hamlet.” I later had a class on Literature and Psychology, which focused solely on the theories of Carl Jung. Though both Freud and Jung are archetypal pseudoscientists, I’m glad their theories at least approach characters in a way human readers tend to approach them—as actual people, not real, but potentially real, and definitely not linguistic ciphers. The really appalling theories falling under the labels of structuralism and poststructuralism, and even, to a somewhat lesser degree, New Historicism, came later in my education. Fortunately, I was inoculated to them through my independent study of science. According to these theories, novels and stories are vessels for the transmission of culture—again, coded messages—and can be “deconstructed” to uncover all the nastiest elements of civilization: patriarchy, oppression, racism, colonialism, ecotoxicity.

At the core of all these theories is the idea that one should read with critical detatchment, assessing the narrative in terms of how it is functioning symbolically, or assessing and resisting the multitudinous ways in which it's trying to push some "dominant culture" onto you. But for most people it's a struggle to get into the text in the first place, so teachers making them even more difficult by freighting them with all these absurd theories and paranoid concerns merely serves to make it less likely they'll get anything out of reading.

Literary theory needs to begin with the realization that people don't need theory to understand stories. And critics should endeavor to cast their readers into the stories they're examining, not out of them.