In a recent keynote address to the Writers' Union of Canada, philosopher Mark Kingwell observed that the development of the modern novel and a reading public the deepening of subjectivity on the one hand and of advent of "democratic liberalism" on the other.  --  He values the fact that "Reading offers a heady way of identifying with another, mirroring and reinforcing the self."[1]  --  But no sooner had Kingwell asserted this than he undermined his own position:  "there is no evidence that exposure to literature reliably expands your moral imagination."  --  In the end, he offered only this pallid hope:  "long-form reading will be with us as long as there is such a thing as individual human consciousness. . . . There is stimulation and pleasure in consciousness but also boredom, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and grief.  Books . . . do not make me a better person, but they give me respite from the incessant noise of existence.  That market will never collapse."  --  There is nothing original in this conclusion.  --  In 2011, Alan Jacobs wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading."  --  In it, he pointed out that "In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run.  --  'We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base:  a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.'"[2]  --  Jacobs's essay, like Kingwell's, is sadly lacking in conviction.  --  Yeats, "The Second Coming" (written in 1919, published in 1921):  "Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." ...




By Mark Kingwell

Harper's Magazine

August 2013
Pages 15-19

--From a keynote speech delivered in May at the annual meeting of the Writers' Union of Canada and published in the *Ottawa Citizen*.  Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

The issue of reading’s future is almost always framed, these days, as a question about technology.  When will e-book sales render hard copies obsolete?  Will print survive?  Can I monetize my hashtags?  Whither Kobo, Kindle, Kickstarter?  Is there a living to be made when editors expect to get quality, on-time copy for zero cents a word?  Are we approaching a literary Singularity, when every human being on earth will, in fact, have written the book they have in them?

You will forgive me if I set these standard, mostly boring, contemporary questions aside for the moment.  The scope of technology’s effects lies on a timescale none of us can survey, creating only opportunities for self-serving predictions -- either wildly optimistic or comprehensively gloomy, depending on your interests, age, and health plan.  More important, these of-the-moment technology-driven concerns do not get us closer to the heart of reading, which is a matter of human consciousness.

I emphatically do not mean that technology is neutral.  Although you can use Facebook or Twitter for social activism as well as for casual hookups, just as you can use a gun to topple a tyrant or exact personal revenge, all technologies have built-in tendencies, if not outright teleologies.  You can use either a pillow or a gun to kill a person, but people with guns kill more people than do people with pillows.  Marshall McLuhan was correct:  sometimes the medium really is the message.

McLuhan himself could be bold, sometimes wacky, on the subject of reading.  “As a drastic extension of man,” he said in a 1969 interview with Playboy, the printing press "was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature, and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization."

That is all good fun, though it does raise the awkward question of which features of the modern world weren’t spawned by movable type.  Hoopskirts?  Monster-truck rallies?  Martin Heidegger analyzes technology with both more wisdom and more prescience.  The task is not to understand the function of this or that tool, he argues, but rather to examine the way technology comes to rule every aspect of existence.  This enframing, as Heidegger calls it, which places everything within the ambit of possible use and disposal, is the real meaning of technology.  You could not hope to find a clearer example of this than the current debate about the future of reading.  As long as we continue to think about reading in the context of technology, we will fail to see the possible effects of our self-imprisonment.

Another standard misconception is that there is a single form of reading in question, and a single future for it.  Current debates are overwhelmingly premised on the false idea that “reading” in its highest or best form means reading books, most often the realist novels of the middle-class condition that have dominated the modern age.  But reading has always offered us a host of experiences, from the mundane to the spiritual, including the dipping, skimming, and hyperlinking that now seem to worry people so.  The specific concern for the future of the bound book should be seen for what it is:  a form of special pleading whereby a particular (how I like to read) masquerades as a universal (reading!).

I want to suggest a possible starting point that takes seriously at least the last item in McLuhan’s list of effects, the idea of a “psychological mode of introspection” that attends reading, an inwardness related to individualism.  I will begin by asserting the following contradiction of late technocapitalism:  we (a) are more networked than ever and yet (b) exhibit a growing deficit in that fellow-feeling usually labeled empathy.  Researchers at the University of Michigan, in a 2010 study, found that American college students are 48 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with a sharper dip -- 61 percent -- having occurred in the past decade.  According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the prevalence of narcissistic-personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their twenties as for the generation that is now sixty-five or older.  These trends strongly correlate to increasing online connectedness.

Now, one could dispute the value of empathetic connection, as various psychologists have lately done.  It has highly selective effects and can lead to an irrational allocation of resources.  But surely it is overall a good thing for human societies to be based on some degree of reciprocal regard for one another.  Hobbesian competition goes only so far to underwrite social norms and the behavior that meets them.  We have learned to be better than that, and part of how we have done so is indeed tied to reading, as McLuhan suggests.

The rise of an educated reading public was linked inextricably to the emergence of democratic liberalism in the Western world.  The development of the novel as a literary form is likewise conjoined with the idea of open public discourse and rational-critical debate.  The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, examining the origins of the “rational public sphere,” dwells at some length on the significance of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela.  One of the first massive literary sensations in Britain, Pamela relates the story of a beautiful young maidservant who is repeatedly importuned and then imprisoned by her nobleman employer, who is infatuated with her.  She must fend off his attempts at seduction and rape.

Often read aloud in contemporary reading groups, the novel entranced and shocked its time; it spawned critiques, imitations, parodies, unauthorized sequels, and endless discussion in coffeehouses, drawing rooms, and literary journals.  Richardson’s use of letters and journal entries as raw material introduces the element of consciousness that strikes Habermas and others as so influential.  We are reading Pamela’s private thoughts, with the page of her writing a kind of free interior space even when her movements are constrained.  But her master, known as Mr. B, is intercepting her letters as part of his campaign to break her will.  We are, then, as it were, reading over his shoulder.  Mr. B begins to admire Pamela’s naturally noble character as well as her good looks, while she succumbs to Stockholm syndrome avant la lettre and falls in love with him.  They enter into what we are meant to understand is an equitable marriage -- thus the novel’s alternative title, Virtue Rewarded -- but even some eighteenth-century readers found this happy consummation of upper-class lust a bit too neat.

The novel brilliantly enacts the process noted by Marx in which a “sentimental veil” of human interest descends over the economic realities of class, marriage, property, and procreation.  But it was the psychological interest that made the novel’s success possible in the first place.  In a manner now so familiar that it is difficult to imagine how revolutionary it felt in 1740, readers were able to substitute the consciousness of a (fictitious) other person for their own.  This doubling and suspension of consciousness is, paradoxically, essential to enriching one’s own sense of interiority or inwardness.  Reading offers a heady way of identifying with another, mirroring and reinforcing the self.  We might match it with Immanuel Kant’s stirring claim, made some four decades after Pamela’s publication, that the motto of the Enlightenment should be a generalized version of Horace’s imperative sapere aude:  have the courage to think for yourself!

After Richardson’s example, the gold rush is on.  Jane Austen’s subtle ironizing about female existence begets Henry James’s hypernuanced appreciation of aesthetic and cultural experience, then the high-water marks of Proust’s and Virginia Woolf’s representations of consciousness itself.  (Kant, meanwhile, makes possible Hegel on Geist, John Stuart Mill on liberty, and Wittgenstein on language, to mention just the barest few.)  What such reading does, then, is something like this:  it objectively summons a subjectivity that belongs to each one of us.  The interiority thereby revealed and reinforced is democratic in the sense that it is available to anyone with the requisite tools of literacy and access to books.

We might argue about the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction, as the fictional characters in Austen sometimes do, but it is clear that printed books and the democratized culture of reading they enable are the most significant developments in human consciousness since, perhaps, the advent of writing itself.  Dictators and medieval monks alike feared the transmission of knowledge via printed books, a technology of access to learning and pleasure that suddenly, and massively, escaped institutional control.  The monks would adapt, more or less, which is why we still have universities.  The dictators would survive, too, but widespread reading made their jobs a lot harder.

What, now, of the future, or futures, of reading?  It has long been claimed by boosters of reading, especially reading in those subjects usually associated with the liberal arts, that there is a strong connection between the act of reading and greater levels of understanding between people.  The inwardness of reading, they argue, especially if it involves the revelation of human character, expands empathetic scope.  In the standard version of this pro-reading position, the next rhetorical move is obvious:  If online connection is lowering empathy and reading raises it, then -- books win!  Turn off your computers, dammit, and get thee to a library!

Of course, the most obvious feature of most libraries these days is their rows upon rows of computer stations.  But the real problem with this argument is that its premises are dubious, if not outright false.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence that exposure to literature reliably expands your moral imagination.  Nor do the liberal arts make you a better citizen -- a common variant on the basic claim.  Nothing is more depressing to those of us who believe in the value of robust critical thought and enhanced ethical imagination than to realize that some students can pass through years of forced ingestion of challenging texts without experiencing a glimmer of either goodness or truth.

There are failures on all sides here.  The failures do not, by themselves, diminish the value of liberal-arts education generally, but let us admit that such education does not guarantee good citizens, and also that there are many exemplary citizens who have not attended a single literature class or read a word of Plato.  Reading Sense and Sensibility may give you a better appreciation of the joys and sorrows of love, but it need not.  You don’t have to be a sociopath to find that prolonged exposure to the minds of fictional others leaves you with just about the same level of regard for real people as before.  The station chief in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is the one person in the novel who has read all the banned books.  He is given to deft, apposite quotation, and points out gleefully how upsetting it is that books all say different things -- an emotion familiar to my first-year philosophy students.  Literary exposure has not softened the heart of this villain.  On the contrary, reading is the foundation of his subtle psychic violence.

For some, the problem is that the modern novel is so closely associated with bourgeois life, a mode of consciousness that we ought to usher off the historical stage.  The very same individualism that came with the spread of literacy has become a global blight, a vast expression of rapacious desires and -- yes -- narcissism.  From this perspective, the current debates about the future of reading are merely the welcome death throes of individualism.  The novel form is here transformed, by the likes of Tao Lin, Tom McCarthy, David Mitchell, and Haruki Murakami, into a philosophical battlefield, with the forces of modern middlebrow conformity opposed by those of postmodern “networks of transmission.”  Well, maybe.  My feeling, as a reader rather than a writer of fiction, is that this is one more inside-baseball debate from which we will all benefit, just as we have from T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace.

My own set of self-serving predictions about the future of reading begins with the belief that long-form reading will be with us as long as there is such a thing as individual human consciousness.  That consciousness is a complicated burden.  There is stimulation and pleasure in consciousness but also boredom, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and grief.  Books are my friends when nobody else can be; they offer a form of intimacy nothing else does.  They do not make me a better person, but they give me respite from the incessant noise of existence.  That market will never collapse.  In the future, some people will be able to make a living as writers, others won’t.  But writing will remain among the cheapest forms of cultural production ever, especially relative to its effects.

We experience selfhood as a story, however haphazard, repetitive, and inconclusive.  While the hypothetical narrative of self may be an illusion, it remains a necessary one.  This peculiar experience of human consciousness will change.  It is already changing.  Individualism is neither woven into the fabric of the universe nor strictly necessary for human survival.  In 2035, following a determined attempt to sideline it with that centuries-long glut of bourgeois novels, with their biofascist insistence on the importance of families and relationships and whatnot, critical philosophy may triumph as the most popular form of reading in history.  But even if that happens, we will continue to argue about all this, just as Socrates and Phaedrus argued the relative merits of reading and speaking more than two millennia ago.



By Alan Jacobs

Chronicle of Higher Education

July 31, 2011

While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to.  And that's to be expected.  Serious "deep attention" reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.

At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only about 30 percent get bachelor's degrees).  A particularly sharp acceleration occurred in the years after 1945, when the G.I. Bill enabled soldiers returning from World War II to attend college for free, thus leading universities across the country to throw up quonset huts for classrooms, and English professors to figure out how to teach 40 students at a time, rather than 11, how to read sonnets.  (And those G.I.'s wanted their children to have the same educational opportunities they had, or better ones.)  These changes have had enormous social consequences, but for our purposes here, the one that matters is this:  From 1945 to 2000, or thereabouts, far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.

In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run.  "We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base:  a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class."

I don't think of the distinction between readers and nonreaders -- better, those who love reading and those who don't so much -- in terms of class, which may be a function of my being a teacher of literature rather than a sociologist, but may also be a function of my knowledge that readers can be found at all social stations.  But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of "the reading class" beyond what may be its natural limits.

The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed.  ("I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing," Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes.  "Can I go back to my books now?")  Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made.  They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books.  They come out of the woodwork when Clay Shirky says that War and Peace isn't interesting to reply that, to the contrary, it's immensely interesting, fascinating, absorbing, and by the way, Mr. Shirky, have you ever tried reading it or are you speaking out of ignorance? -- and then back to their books they go.

Those are my tribe, but they are few.  It is more common to come across the person who has known the joys of reading but who can be distracted from them.  But even those folks are a small percentage of the population.

American universities are largely populated by people who don't fit either of these categories -- often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive.  For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.  We love reading, we think it's wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too.  "What we have loved,/Others will love," wrote Wordsworth, "and we will teach them how."  A noble sentiment!  Inspiring!  But what if, after great labor, we discover -- this often happens -- that we can't teach them how?  Whose fault is that?

Perhaps it isn't anyone's fault.  Steven Pinker once said that "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on."  The key here is "painstakingly":  There can be many pains, in multiple senses of the word, for all parties involved, and it cannot be surprising that many of the recipients of the bolting aren't overly appreciative, and that even those who are appreciative don't find the procedure notably pleasant.  So it's important to dissociate reading from academic life, not just because teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be, but also because the whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history.

Rarely has education been about teaching children, adolescents, or young adults how to read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, appreciative attention -- at least, not since the invention of the printing press.  When books were scarce, the situation was different:  The North African boy who later became known to history as St. Augustine spent countless hours of his education poring over, analyzing word by word, and memorizing a handful of books, most of them by Virgil and Cicero; this model was followed largely because no one had many books, so each one was treated as precious.  Augustine's biographer Peter Brown has commented that some of Augustine's intellectual eccentricities are the product of "a mind steeped too long in too few books" -- something that can be said of almost nobody today.

Even after Gutenberg, this assumption of scarcity persisted, as George Steiner has noted in an anecdote about one of the leading scholars of the Renaissance:  "The tale is told of how Erasmus, walking home on a foul night, glimpsed a tiny fragment of print in the mire.  He bent down, seized upon it and lifted it to a flickering light with a cry of thankful joy.  Here was a miracle."

But as the historian Ann Blair explains in Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, the printing press ushered in an age of information overload.  In the 17th century, one French scholar cried out, "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire."  Such will be our fate "unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not."

So what did those poor deluged people do?  Well, they adopted several strategies.  First, they practiced various ways of marking important passages in books:  with special symbols, with slips of paper, and so on.  Then they came up with various ways of organizing books:  There were now so many that figuring out how to arrange them became quite a puzzle, so the learned began debates on this subject that would culminate in the creation of the great Dewey Decimal Classification.

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon -- it comes from his essay "Of Studies" -- concerns the reading of books:  "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."  This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn't imagine how they were going to read them all.  Bacon tells such worried folks that they can't read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time.  I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky's comment that we suffer not from "information overload" but from "filter failure."  Bacon's famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Blair also points out that certain enterprising scholars recognized that this information overload created a market for reference works and books that claimed to summarize important texts -- We read the books so you don't have to! -- or promised to teach techniques for the rapid assimilation of knowledge.  But serious scholars like Meric Casaubon denounced the search for "a shorter way" to learning, insisting that "the best method to learning . . . is indefatigable (soe farr as the bodie will beare) industrie, and assiduitie, in reading good authors, such as have had the approbation of all learned ages."  No shortcuts allowed.

All this should sound familiar:  Casaubon might be a professor today warning students against Wikipedia, and it turns out that every era has its intellectual hucksters willing to sell knowledge on the cheap to the panicky or lazy.  But perhaps especially noteworthy is Bacon's acknowledgment that there is a place for what Katherine Hayles would call "hyper attention" as well as "deep attention."  Some books don't need to be read with patience and care; at times it's O.K., even necessary, to skim (merely to "taste" rather than to ruminate).  And as Shreeharsh Kelkar, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has pointed out, "To be successful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim, but it becomes essential to skim well."

Except in those cultures in which books have been scarce, like Augustine's Roman North Africa, the aims of education have often focused, though rarely explicitly so, on the skills of skimming well.  Peter Norvig says:  "When the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration.  But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview.  Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist."  Norvig is research director at Google, so he might be expected to say something like this, but I still think he's right -- except, I would argue, concentrating has rarely received equal billing with skimming.

Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deep knowledge of particular texts.  Instead, education, especially in its "liberal arts" embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools -- with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life.  (Even the old English public schools flogged their students through years of Latin and Greek not because Latin and Greek were intrinsically valuable, still less useful, but because the discipline of such study would have a salutary effect on young men's characters.  And these are the terms in which survivors of that system typically praise it.)  This is one of the ways in which the artes liberales are supposed to be "liberal," that is, "liberating":  They free you to make your own way through the challenges of life without requiring external props.

All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading -- or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books -- is largely alien to the history of education.  And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well.  A chief theme of Jonathan Rose's magisterial The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is that the culture of reading among those classes was more dynamic, more impassioned, before the study of English literature was incorporated into the general curriculum of English schools (in the wake of the Education Act of 1870).

Rose's book is largely a celebration of autodidacticism, of people whose reading -- and especially the reading of classic texts, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to the great Romantic poets -- wasn't imposed on them by anyone, and who often had to overcome significant social obstacles in order to read.  "The autodidacts' mission statement," Rose writes, was "to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers.  Those who proclaimed that 'knowledge is power' meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion."

The academic study of literature is a wonderful thing, and not just because it has paid my salary for most of my adult life, but it is not an unmixed blessing, and teachers will rarely find it possible simply to inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading.

Over the past 150 years, it has become increasingly difficult to extricate reading from academic expectations; but I believe that such extrication is necessary.  Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about -- I scruple not to say it -- skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content.  Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.

Yes, I know that the word "school" derives from scholia, meaning leisure.  I have tried that one on my students, with no more success than anyone else who has ever tried that one on students.  When we say that education is a leisure activity, we simply mean that you can only pursue education if you are temporarily freed from the responsibility of providing yourself with food and shelter.  Maybe this freedom comes from your parents; maybe it comes from loans that you're going to devote a good many years to repaying.  But somebody is buying you time to read, think, and study.  This is not just a legitimate but a vital point, one that every student really should remember.  But it can only be misleading and frustrating -- trust me, I've learned from experience -- to call this leisure, because leisure for us has come to mean "what we do in our spare time simply because we want to."  From this kind of leisurely encounter, education, however wonderful, must be distinguished.

There is a kind of attentiveness proper to school, to purposeful learning of all kinds, but in general it is closer to "hyper attention" than to "deep attention."  I would argue that even reading for information -- reading textbooks and the like -- does not require extended unbroken focus.  It requires discipline but not raptness, I think:  The crammer chains himself to the textbook because of time pressures, not because the book itself requires unbroken concentration.  Given world enough and time, the harried student could read for a while, do something else, come back and refresh his memory, take another break . . . but the reader of even the most intellectually demanding work of literary art would lose a great deal by following such tactics.  No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs.  The attention it demands is the deep kind.

I am not at all sure that deep attention to anything in particular can be taught in a straightforward way:  It may, perhaps, only arise from within, according to some inexplicable internal necessity of being.  Some people -- many people -- most people -- will not experience that internal necessity of being in books, in texts.  But for people like Erasmus (with his "cry of thankful joy" on spying a fragment of print) or Lynne Sharon Schwartz ("Can I get back to my books now?"), books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self.

But then there are the people Nicholas Carr writes about in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and Carr himself:  people who know what it is like to be lost in a book, who value that experience, but who have misplaced it -- who can't get back, as Lucy Pevensie for a time can't get back to Narnia; what was an opening to another world is now the flat planked back of a wardrobe.  They're the ones who need help, and want it, and are prepared to receive it.

I had become one of those people myself, or was well on my way to it, when I was rescued through the novelty of reading on a Kindle.  My hyper-attentive habits were alienating me further and further from the much older and (one would have thought) more firmly established habits of deep attention.  I was rapidly becoming a victim of my own mind's plasticity, until a new technology helped me to remember how to do something that for years had been instinctive, unconscious, natural.

I don't know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention -- who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight -- can learn how.  Some current college students will not have had those experiences, and it would be futile and painful to expect them to read as most of their teachers have read.

But I'm confident that those who have had this facility can recover it:  They just have to want that recovery enough to make sacrifices for it, something they will only do if they can vividly recall what that experience was like.  And it may be that one of the better services teachers can provide for students today is to awaken those good memories whenever they exist.

--Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College. This article is excerpted from his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011).