How Long, O Lord?

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.

4 thoughts on “How Long, O Lord?

  1. My New Testament professor (take a bow, AKMA) made me assemble a Commonplace Book in my first semester of seminary. At the time I was spending a boatload of time feeling frustrated and cross-eyed as I waded through ponderous swaths of erudite prose in the name of theological education. Preserved in my book is a comment from Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, Book IV, that seems to me as pertinent now as it was then:

    “What is the point, after all, of correctness of speech which the hearers are unable to follow or understand? … So the person who is teaching will avoid all words that do not in fact teach.

    “What, after all, is the use of a golden key if it cannot open what we want, or what is wrong with a wooden key if it can, since all we are looking for is that closed doors should be opened to us?”

  2. Correction: At the time you were technically my Early Church History prof; but as you taught my NT class later, I think I get partial credit– or at least am not wholly wrong.

  3. Akma, I think the issue is not the capacity to read short or long texts. It is instead the capacity for solitude and investment in a single self-directed activity. Responsiveness and monitoring of multiple contexts or channels are virtues that compete with those required for reading (or some forms of musical practice, or meditation, or dancing or martial arts forms or attending to forms of conversation).

    We live very interrupted and interruptible lives.

    It is not simply monkey mind, always curious, never settling. It is an ever-changing technological and social context where we must keep learning all the time to be able to communicate with each other (or at least with younger people) and to make sense of the world.

    Anchors help–a disciplined way of approaching the world or a framework for engaging it (faith & scripture & practice, say, or scholarship, or maintaining principles & family connections despite changing contexts). Acceptance of the pain of alienation and anomie can help, even.

    The book as we know it is a technology a few centuries old. I don’t think capacity for reading is less than it was 150 years ago. It may be less than it was 50 years ago in the US, but I think it is still higher than ever in most of he world.

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