Friday, March 27, 2015

Slow reading, and slow tweeting

I've added a widget to the front page of this blog which shows my most recent posts to twitter, that overcongested superhighway of the internet.

I don't think that Michael Lambek has a twitter account. An anthropologist who divides his time between the London School of Economics and the University of Scarborough, Lambek has written an essay for Savage Minds to lament the decline of 'slow reading' in twenty-first century universities. Lambek argues that many of today's students are either struggling with or avoiding altogether the heavy and heady books that excited earlier generations of scholars.

Lambek explains that, in many anthropology departments, instructors have stopped prescribing classic texts of ethnography, or else have offered these works to students in measured doses. EE Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande, for example, is given in an abridged paperback edition. Distracted by social media and other epiphenomena of our digital age, students apparently find it difficult to penetrate the forests left behind by scholars like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski. They cannot do the sort of careful, reflective reading that generates ideas and helps get essays written.

Lambek blames not only social media but the 'substitution of images for text' for the decline in students' reading. He notes that many students are now more accustomed to powerpoint displays, with their reassuringly steady flow of easily identifiable images, than to purely verbal seminars and lectures. The 'traditional classroom arts' of 'listening and note-taking' are, he fears, disappearing.

When I feel the same sort of melancholy as Lambek, I try to banish it by visiting Hookland, the twitter feed run by David Southwell, a British journalist known for his interest in conspiracy theories, gangsters, and the Angry Brigade. Southland's tweets pose as despatches from a sort of alternative England, a place of restless gargoyles, blood-stained power pylons, babbling vicars, and overfriendly UFOs. Like Mortmere, the alt-England invented by boarding schoolmates Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward in the 1920s, Hookland seems simultaneously celebratory and satirical.

I was excited when I discovered Southwell's tweets, because they suggested to me that twitter could be used to create mystery, and to detain a reader's attention, rather than as a lubricant for what Michael Lambek calls 'rapid fire and simultaneous online communication'.

Southwell's tweets frequently combine a text and an image, but the relationship of these parts is not always straightforward. Where the images in a powerpoint presentation normally exist as mere illustrations of the presenter's argument, the blurred or broken photographs, scraps of old maps, and covers of imaginary books that Southwell tweets often seem to contradict, or at least qualify, the lapidarian fragments of text that accompany them. In the space between their meanings an ambiguity alien to much of the twittersphere, but familiar to anyone who understands modernist and postmodernist poetry, appears and prospers.

Sometimes Southwell takes photographs of pages of books or magazines and posts them, alongside cryptic commentaries. Devoid of their contexts, these pages become artefacts that ask to be examined and catalogued. They can only be read slowly.

Hookland is an almost hermetic twitter feed. Its author never joins the high-velocity debates that regular shake the twittersphere, and seldom even acknowledges the twenty-first century world. And yet his tweets are often reposted scores of times. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks David Southwell is inventing a new artform, and suggesting a new and more intellectually important role for social media.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Yes, it's interesting. FB and Twitter are in a way new art forms in themselves. The problem is that they also distract us (as do Blogs!). But I see you ref. to Upward and 'The Rotten Elements' That was a good post, I picked up a copy of Upward's trilogy. I'd be interested in finding his stories.

I think that there has been decline in long slow reading since the turn of the century and it started when they threw out Greek and Latin and other subjects. I recall reading books by Huxley and Eliot's and Pound's poems and being baffled by all the Greek, French, Latin and other languages that it was assumed one knew. Then there was Pound's: 'His Penelope was Flaubert.' This puzzled.

Years later I've read a lot of Flaubert and the Odyssey and much else.

But a professor in the US, on the topic of reading (" an age of Distraction') wrote that he himself was always itching to tweet or activate his Blackberry or Ipad or whatever he used for RSS feeds and all the other stuff.

He found he had lost the ability to be rapt while reading. Absolutely absorbed into a book (his method for reading is NOT to advocate long or 'seminal' books, but he advocates reading by Whim (a slighly more 'informed' method than simply by whim, or randomly). So for those who read for pleasure (and even students) he advocates slow reading. Even re-reading of books enjoyed. He gives examples of things that are discovered while doing this (even certain words used by a writer that are almost essential to the atmosphere or 'point' of a book.

I mix the long slow reading with quicker books (often shorter, I notice that some of the more recent Nobel prize winners seemed to write a lot of short books [Coetzee, Toni Morrison (I just started a book by her and I read about 6 of Coetzee's books, partly as they are relatively short): but even Victor managed to read a lot of classics (Some Balzac, Les Miserables, Gulliver's Travels, 1984, Catch 22 (modern classics) as well as some Flaubert) and also plays a lot of computer games.

In the modern-postmodern age we are 'given permission' to read in chunks as on FB and Twitter. I suspect what is happening is what was actually advocated in some ways by the L=A=U=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their poetics, at least in part.

But our academic students and aspiring writers or sociolgists still need to tackle those 'useful' tomes [admittedly we all 'cheat', as Wiki enables us to get summaries of books or philosopher's books and I have to say I have rarely read right through a major philosopher's writing. Mostly I've read around them with books about them, or in the case of Sartre we were recommended to read his 'Nausea' and some stories as well as Camus's 'The Outsider' (I also read 'The Plague') and I used Readers of writers. Although I did read quite a lot of Plato, and as a teenager read the whole of Spinoza's Ethics and 'Thus Sprach Zarathrustra' as well as Russell's book about philosophers.

1:02 am  
Blogger Richard said...

But before I had got to high school I had read almost all of the novels of Dickens as well as Les Miserables, then I read The Hunchback, much of Shakespear, JOyce's early books, Golding, 1984 and other books by Orwell, much of Conrad, a lot of Sci Fi, Maugham and de Maupassant (in translation) and much else.

We had no television and I didn't miss it. In fact I got rid of my television. I considered getting rid of my computer also.

The Professor (Alan Jacobs) that wanted to return to that primal reading experience, found, paradoxically, that have an e-reader meant he was able to read again as (he found) he wasn't distracted by it.

It is a mix of the pleasure of the text (Barthes is one philospher I enjoy reading as is Foucault) and images - which Barthes wrote about.

So while Southwell sounds great, we still have such as our old friend Harold Bloom who recommends a long list of 'Great Books'...such lists or lists of books and writers fascinate me, but they also can be a trap as one reads (or may do this), ticks them off, then is pleased with 'having read' as Alan Jacobs points out in 'The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction'.

I think there is danger of a move toward superficiality inherent in 'social media' - fewer people will even take the time to read your Blog posts for example. People are becoming more and more interesting in fleeting trivia. It has a fascination but your Anthropologist has a point.

1:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard you are very verbose!

6:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Practise your slow reading on my verbosity.

9:00 pm  
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