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Susan E. Cook: Deep Reading the Victorians (Part 1 of 3)

2014 October 31

Susan E. Cook, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English
Southern New Hampshire University 

What is it like to read in the 21st century?  How does technology impact our reading practices?  How does the shift from print to digital impact the way we read—and how does the shift from older printing techniques to contemporary ones also impact our reading?

In his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, science and technology writer Nicholas Carr employs cultural critique and neuroscience to argue that the Internet is eroding our “capacity for concentration and contemplation” (6).  This argument has since been reiterated and substantiated in subsequent studies and reports such as Farhad Manjoo’s “You Won’t Finish This Article” in Slate (June 2013) and Jennifer Smith’s “Proof of our shrinking attention span” in Mail Online (January 2014).

Carr positions books as the “primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight”—a statement most literary scholars can surely get behind—and goes on to argue that the digital era heralds the end of books (76).  He is wary of digital readers such as the Kindle with their “built-in, always-available wireless connection to the Internet” (101):

When a printed book—whether a recently published scholarly history or a two-hundred-year-old Victorian novel [sic]—is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.  Its words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer.  Its links and other digital enhancements propel the reader hither and yon.  It loses what the late John Updike called its ‘edges’ and dissolves into the vast roiling waters of the Net.  The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader.  The high-tech features of devices like the Kindle and Apple’s new iPad may make it more likely that we’ll read e-books, but the way we read them will be very different from the way we read printed editions.  (104)

Books, claims Carr, have been our culture’s primary source of knowledge heretofore.  In the digital age, we not only risk losing our capacity to read certain materials (traditional books) in certain (deep) ways, we risk losing our culture writ large.

Indeed, the value of printed books is a recurring theme throughout the study.  Printed books all demand deep reading, writes Carr: “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are largely the same” (72).  While books require deep reading, or “sustained, unbroken attention…combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning,” the Internet compels a more fragmented and shallow reading (64).  Carr does allow for some complications to this schematization in his 25-page history of the written word, but in general he maintains his thesis that printed books demand one kind of reading and online materials another.  The shift from one to the other, he writes, is significant: “After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges” and this heralds “a new intellectual ethic” (77).

Carr’s evidence is compelling, but his thesis is not without its critics.  While many have corroborated Carr’s study, some have warned that he does not adequately acknowledge the positive effects of digital technology.  In his review for The New York Times, for instance, Jonah Lehrer cites two 2009 studies that show positive neurological effects of Internet usage.

My own critique is more of a series of questions.  Carr’s distinction between online reading and print reading is one of the most provocative points in Carr’s study, for it implies a sharp divide between the two.  The experience of reading a novel online as Carr describes it, replete with hyperlinks and via a medium that conditions us to click and skim, is clearly different from reading a printed book.  Yet do all printed books compel the same deep reading?  Is the division between print and digital the only or the central division worth discussing with regard to deep reading?  It is easy to see the shift to digital as an epistemic break, but it seems to me that by focusing on this break exclusively we run the risk of flattening out the history of print.

I encounter nineteenth-century printed materials frequently through research, but I find I often approach them as material artifacts to be examined, not novels to be consumed.  How different would it be to read a nineteenth-century edition of a novel I had never read before, in comparison to the more modern editions I typically encounter?  Such an experiment would, of course, be far from objective and far from scientifically valid—it would be anecdotal and necessarily influenced by my suspicion that the reading experience of all print materials is not the same.  I am, however, currently teaching a course on the material history of the book.  In this course, I am taking students to various special collections and showing them nineteenth-century editions and materials.  My students are potentially more impacted by the shallows of Internet reading than I, and this class is particularly suited to reflect on the differences between nineteenth-century print, contemporary print, and digital reading.

A two-step experiment began to emerge.

First, I would read a nineteenth-century edition of a nineteenth-century novel I had never read and describe the experience.  Next, I would ask my class to complete one week’s Bleak House reading assignment by reading one chapter from the class Penguin edition, one chapter from one of the first editions owned by my library, and one chapter online through Project Gutenberg.  I would ask them to reflect on their reading experiences and note any differences.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this blog post, I document this two-part experiment.



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