One aspect of the online conversation several of us were holding involved the question of whether “we” or “students” or some other constituency could read long-form texts adequately any more. If students can’t read The City of God but immerse themselves in Facebook status updates all day, have we arrived at the threshold of civilization’s end?
While I quickly and firmly stand against portentous claims about digital media making us stupid, I sympathize with people’s concerns about students’ — and “our,” for those of us who don’t self-identify as students — capacity to read well. Experience suggests to me, though, that this has more to do with the capacity to read texts of any length, than with skill at one length (contrasted with incapacity at a different length).
I resist the quick identification of the problem as “short texts, digital media” in part because changes in reading involve complex cultural changes on other fronts, too. Scapegoating digital media ignores the role of video culture, cinema, of changes in journalistic practice, and changes in the ways that scholars produce long (and short) texts. To indulge in self-quotation, “It’s more complicated than that.”
I also resist these concerns because of the presumed valorization on longer expositions of scholarly argument. Long isn’t ipso facto bad, but neither is it good. Too often, writers and teachers and preachers and liturgists presume that the only reason for making their productions shorter involves impatience, short attention span, the moral and characterological flaws of their audiences — when we can easily point to plenty of profound meditations and arguments that manage to express tremendous wisdom in relatively short compass. Sometimes, long is sheer self-indulgence — and when we focus attention solely on the alleged short attention span allegedly caused by digital media, we occlude several other very pertinent aspects of problems relative to our expression and apprehension of meaning.