Kakutani (and The Onion) on Sustained, Analytical Reading

In her recent essay “Texts Without Context,” New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani argues that web two-point-oh innovations have led to a world where–

More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

Kakutani’s piece seems to be prompted by David Shields’s recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger, which she points out is a symptom of “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.” She continues–

Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime.

Kakutani keenly points out the stakes of such a facile media-land, even as she posits the real good that can come from technologies. In short, we seem to be heading into a future obsessed with immediacy to the point that sustained, analytical reading will not only no longer have place or merit with the general public, it will also be increasingly difficult as we learn to “read” new media in new ways. Put another way, we are becoming shallow.

I see this first-hand every day. I teach Advanced Placement high school English courses, mostly to kids aged 16-18. I’ve noticed that in the past seven years my students are less and less able to sustain concentration on challenging–or even particularly unchallenging pieces of rhetoric or literature in the classroom. My current students are less likely to read for pleasure than the kids I taught at the beginning of the last decade. They have all bought into the fiction of multitasking, the belief that one can frequently interrupt one’s reading of Shakespeare or Henry David Thoreau (or hell, even Stephen King or a Harry Potter book) with a quick text message, or, worse, a change of the channel (I have to literally begin each year by explaining to students that it is basically impossible to read something by a writer like Herman Melville or Cynthia Ozick with one eye on the television screen). You can imagine what how these shallow reading habits affect their research abilities. It’s not just my students though. Nationwide, the NCES reports that almost a third of high school graduates need reading remediation courses in college and that remediation classes are necessary for those students to earn college degrees. It’s pretty much an open secret in education that these numbers are drastically under-reported, with remedial classes often given euphemistic names to hide the appearance of shared institutional/student inadequacies. As Kakutani points out in her article, shallow attention spans, weak readers, and poor research skills could lead to drastic balkanization, cultural inertia, and just plain ole stupidity.

Kakutani’s article points to a future where “the blurring of news and entertainment” is normalized, so what better way to end than with an article from The Onion, published a week before “Texts Without Context.” The headline: “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.” The first paragraphs:

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”

“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about.

5 thoughts on “Kakutani (and The Onion) on Sustained, Analytical Reading”

  1. I used to teach AP English Language and Composition and advanced tenth-grade English classes. I had to begin every year with a class period on why people should read at all. “Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about” is very close to actual statements made by students. I had very few students who read anything for pleasure outside of class, and all of them believe in the myth of multitasking.

    The scariest thing is not the students in the limited number of AP classes. It’s the students in the regular classes- the vast majority. They read nothing in class or outside of class unless it is read to them. I’ve taught many tenth graders who were reading at a fifth-grade level.

    Where do we go from here culturally?


  2. Perhaps just as shocking: apparently more than half the students in first-year intro to film studies classes at my university ask why they need to watch black-and-white films…


    1. When I used to show a video to my high school or middle school students, they would groan when it was black and white. Of course, their complaints would disappear once the engagement began (which was fast). Black and white was code for dull.

      Interestingly, though, those complaints have disappeared over the past three years. As students have becoming linked to… everything, black and white seems like another platform that might hold something interesting.

      There is hope.


  3. Becoming a reader–as a normal activity–is about practice. Not only do readers need to practice decoding and fluency to move to the level where books create images and engage the mind, but they need to practice choosing books and discarding the dogs. In addition, like an athlete, readers need to build stamina.

    The best thing schools can do is build an hour of sustained silent reading (SSR) into each school day. Telling students that reading is important is like telling them about diet and excercise; yes, they know it, now pass the Ho-Ho. While SSR brings a strong reaction to a number of my colleagues–they should read at home!–I can think of no single activity worth doing.

    Amazingly, once the book(s) have been read, the discussion, analysis and reflection parts of class go amazingly smooth. Faced with a classroom of juniors faking their way through Hemingway, we made SSR a classroom activity and homework writing-centered. From there they enjoyed their journey through American Literature, with several telling me that these were the first books they had read since 8th grade.

    More important, after a year of SSR I find that students begin to see reading as an activity worth doing. My literature review on the subject turned up six months as the magic number before it had an affect, which is about how long a student (in my experience) fights the task, gives in, and becomes engaged.

    One technique I got was giving the students all of the text on the first day with a list of dates for when those units would begin. The teacher who shared it said it gave kids room to read naturally, so that when they reread for the unit they could focus on the points discussed in class.

    I am now teaching middle school, with the goal of creating lifelong readers (if the high school teachers don’t kill the urge in trying to fan the flame). Somewhere between second and seventh grade reading became proscribed and lost its breath. We cannot assume kids have enough boredom in their lives to sit around reading the two or three odd books found in today’s homes. We need to foster it daily during those six hours we have the kids for 180 days.


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