A Lot Like a Movie

I've rarely read an essay whose title so inaccurately signals its content than Annie Murphy Paul's "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," posted at Time.com. It is ostensibly a response to Gregory Currie's post on the New York Times's Opinionator blog, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?," but in fact after quoting Currie's contention there is little evidence "that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy," Paul does not discuss "literature" at all but instead moves on to make claims about the nature of reading that can't withstand scrutiny and do nothing to show that reading literary works makes us "smarter and nicer."

The bulk of her argument is a brief on behalf of "deep reading," which she then uses to attack the kind of reading she thinks the internet encourages. According to Paul

            Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

This sort of affirmation of what is asserted to be "deep reading" has become quite common among those who think the internet has endangered it, but on a fundamental level, Paul's articulation of the claim is incoherent. The biggest problem is in the conception of "reading" (presumably fiction) to begin with. It's certainly unclear why "deep" must be equated with "slow," but even more perplexing is the notion that reading might be "rich in sensory detail" and involves "emotional and moral complexity." The only "sensory detail" that could possibly accompany the act of reading is the visual detail of words on a page encountered by the eye. Any other manifestation of sensory detail occurs in the reader's mind as he/she projects the images the writer attempts to simulate through words—but of course these images are not literally present for the reader to perceive. Similarly, "emotional and moral complexity" is not something we read, but instead create ourselves upon reflection about what we have read—probably considerably after the fact.

This alleged "deep" experience of detail and complexity Paul sums up in her use of the word "immersion," which "is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life." At least Paul here acknowledges that the activities of reading are psychological/neurological activities produced by the mind itself, but she also reveals that her underlying assumption about "literature" is that it essentially consists of an image-based narrative that can be followed as if "the scene were unfolding in real life." In other words, what "immersion" in a literary work amounts to is that the brain converts the text into a "mental representation" that is a lot like a movie.

Thus we are "immersed" in a book in the same way we allow our attention to be captured by the most compelling movies. Indeed, Paul describes this almost involuntary immersion as akin to "a hypnotic trance." Paul clearly believes this is a beneficial state in which to find oneself as a reader, but it's not at all clear why this would be the case. Is it really a good thing that this sort of "deep" reading "frees the reader from making decisions"? Shouldn't serious reading be an active experience that broadens our awareness rather than the passive experience that constricts it Annie Murphy Paul is offering us? Isn't reading really something very different from watching a movie, calling on entirely other human capacities?

Ultimately Paul's essay devolves into the same old simplistic celebration of print over internet, even though that has nothing at all to do with the issue Currie raises in questioning the putative moral effects of works of literature. Online reading, with its pesky decisions and constant distractions, threatens to undermine our ability to read deeply, which is really only encouraged by print, etc., etc. Curiously, after deploring the tendency of online reading to present obstacles to uninterrupted reading, Paul claims that "slow, unhurried" reading has the virtue of allowing readers time "to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions." What is the deflection of attention to "reflection" and the intrusion of "memories and opinions" if not distractions, wanderings away from the work at hand? Here it seems to me that Paul simply casts deep reading as a more elevated form of preoccupation with self.

Unfortunately, the whole debate on the nature of reading and on the effects of reading "literature" in particular is usually predicated on a view of literature that is reductive and misleading. Paul and Currie alike rely on a concept of literature that first of all restricts it to fiction (usually novels). Seldom included in the discussion is the experience of reading poetry, which in most cases surely can't be equated with the act of following a narrative as if it were a movie running in our heads. Its moral effects can't be based on our response to characters and their dilemmas or, as suggested by some studies of readers' responses to fiction, through our identification with their "mind." Further, the fiction considered in these discussions is usually the most conventional, story-centered and realistic sort (except when it is most obviously "mind"-centered, as in Virginia Woolf). Are we "immersed" in, say, Finnegans Wake or The Unnameable in the same way Paul claims we are in those narratives featuring "scenes" that seem to be "unfolding in real life"?

Reading works like these would have to involve engaging "deeply" with the irreducible medium of literature, language itself. Since such works in their own deep immersion in language and its aesthetic possibilities have an even greater claim to be considered "literature" than the kind of routine narrative fiction the debate about the importance of reading usually presumes, perhaps those involved in this debate ought to devote some attention to them instead.