I have been unwell lately and struggling a little with my health. This has been the case for the last 30 years, having just passed an unwanted anniversary. I first got sick in 1990, when I was about 21. It has been a hard slog ever since. There are times when it is harder than usual – this is one of those times. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) – the illness that many say doesn’t exist. That is not something people can tell me. It is a terrible affliction and something I would be gladly done with.
The link below is to an article that looks at one particular case (and not all cases are exactly the same by the way) and I think it provides a bit of an insight on the impacts of the illness on people’s lives. It can be very hard – every single day.
So why this post? Well, I’ll be posting on a very limited basis for the time being. I am struggling to get to work each day and frankly that is more important than my Blogs. I still need to pay the bills, put food on the table, etc, and so my ‘hobby’ will have to be pushed to the side a little. I have at times thought that I should just close the Blogs and websites and be done with it – but I really don’t want this illness to steal something else from me. Perhaps one day it will, but not today.
Public anxiety about the capacity of digital-age children and young adults to read anything longer than a screen grab has come to feel like moral panic. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest we must take such unease seriously.
In 2016, the US National Endowment for the Arts reported the proportion of American adults who read at least one novel in 2015 had dropped to 43.1% from 56.9% in 1982.
In 2018, a US academic reported that in 1980, 60% of 18-year-old school students read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school. By 2016, the number had plummeted to 16%.
Those same 12th graders reported spending “six hours a day texting, on social media and online”.
Why it matters that teens are reading less
American literacy expert and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes the threat screen reading poses to our capacity for “the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading”.
Will the mix of continuously stimulating distractions of children’s attention and immediate access to multiple sources of information give young readers less incentive either to build their own storehouses of knowledge or to think critically for themselves?
But rather than taking up defensive positions on either side of the digital-analogue reading divide, Wolf encourages us to embrace both. As parents and teachers we can help our children develop a bi-literate reading brain. There are several ways we can do this.
Reading is a learned skill that requires the development of particular neural networks. And different reading platforms encourage the development of different aspects of those networks.
Screen-reading children, immersed from toddlerhood in the pleasures and instant gratification of skimming, clicking and linking, develop cognitive skills that make them adept power browsers, good at the useful ability to scan for information and analyse data.
But Wolf suggests this kind of reading “can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.”
Unless the cognitive skills required for deep reading are similarly developed and nurtured, new generations of readers – distracted by the ready availability of digital information – may not learn to venture beyond the shallows of the reading experience.
Along with others concerned with early childhood education Wolf advises encouraging paper literacy from infancy. She doesn’t recommend forbidding devices. Instead we should regularly turn them off and make the time and space to read books on paper with children.
We can model our own reading practices by setting aside our own smart phones to lose ourselves in a book.
But how can secondary and tertiary teachers help inexperienced readers? The problem is likely to be aliteracy, meaning students can read but they choose not to because they don’t see it to be important for learning. And because they haven’t read much, it’s hard work. The problem can seem intractable. But it can be done.
Turn off the phone and read
My first venture into helping tertiary students read better was a 2011-2013 cross-university government-funded project that set out to foster what we termed “reading resilience”. We found if students were persuaded to prioritise reading as they did a test or an essay, they would invest the time to get into the zone that is the other world of the text.
We complemented complex texts with a guide that encouraged students to think critically as they read and to keep going when the language seemed impenetrable, the narrative incomprehensible (or dull) and the length endless. Or when the siren call of the smart phone became irresistible.
They experimented with switching off their devices for blocks of two hours while they simply read. And they did read.
Students prioritised this difficult work because we rewarded pre-class reading with marks. Some classes uploaded one-page, carefully argued responses; others answered complex feedback-rich quizzes.
I surveyed a large first-year introduction to literary studies at the University of Queensland in 2013 before testing a version of the same “reading resilience” course in 2014. The rise in reading rates was exponential.
The number of students who completed all ten primary texts (including the poem Beowulf and Toni Morrison’s Beloved) more than tripled, and the number who completed the ten accompanying secondary texts (selected chapters from an introduction to literary theory and criticism) went up by more than six times.
Reported student satisfaction for this course from 2008 to 2012 had ranged between 64% and 75%. Once reading resilience was introduced, many complained about the reading load yet the level of overall satisfaction jumped to 86%.
We can all do it
It’s not just readers raised in a digital-age who have difficulty with long-form text. Have you have lost the skill of deep reading? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to stay with, say, a literary novel? You are not alone.
Wolf, who despite having two degrees in literature, confesses to the shocking discovery that recently she found herself struggling to stick with a beloved Herman Hesse novel.
We too can switch off our devices and set aside a space and time to revitalise the neural pathways that once made us immersive readers.
As Wolf argues, the skills of “deep reading” that involve “slower, more time-consuming cognitive processes […] are vital for contemplative life”. Deep readers are likely to be more thoughtful members of the community at a time when good citizenship may never have been more important.
Why does reading in the back seat make you feel sick? – Jane, aged 10, from Coburg North, Australia.
Hi Jane, your question about why reading in the back seat makes you feel sick is a very good one. The answer has to do with our eyes, our ears and our brain.
Reading in the back seat can make you feel sick because your eyes and ears are having an argument that your brain is trying to settle!
Curious Kids: Why do our ears pop?
When you’re reading in the back seat, your eyes see that your book is still. Your eyes then tell your brain you are still.
But your ears feel the car is moving. Your ears then tell your brain you’re moving.
How can your ears tell you’re moving?
Your ears don’t just hear, they help with your balance too.
Your ear has three main parts:
- the outer ear is the bit you can see on the side of someone’s head
- the middle ear is your eardrum and some tiny bones and muscles
- the inner ear is the part of your ear that can help with your balance.
Your inner ear contains cells that have hairs sticking out the top. Scientists call these “hair cells”.
Some of these hair cells help us to hear. When sound hits those hair cells, the hairs move and the cells send signals to the brain. Our brains use those signals to hear.
Other hair cells help us to keep our balance. When the car we’re sitting in moves, that movement makes the hairs on those hair cells move too, and they send different signals to the brain. Our brain uses those different signals to tell we’re moving.
Why doesn’t the brain like this?
Some people’s brains don’t like it when their eyes say they’re still but their ears say they’re moving.
When eyes and ears argue like this, the brain can think that something dangerous might be about to happen.
If this happens, the brain can get the body ready to fight or run away (scientists call this the “fight or flight” response).
One of the things the brain can do is take blood away from the stomach to give to the muscles.
Giving blood to the muscles can help us to fight or run away. But taking blood away from the stomach can make us feel sick.
What can you do about it?
If reading in the back seat makes you feel sick, you might need to settle the argument between your eyes and your ears.
One way to do this is to stop reading and to look out the car window. This could help your eyes to tell your brain that you’re moving as you see the world whizz by, and your ears to tell your brain that you are moving as you feel the car moving.
But this suggestion won’t work for everyone. Some people will still feel sick when they ride in a car, even if they aren’t reading.
This is because while our eyes and our ears help us to balance, so do our skin and our muscles. This creates many opportunities for arguments that our brain has to settle!
Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Are we all trapped in a live-action version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”?
The Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was followed by a torrent of contradictory narratives.
Was Soleimani planning to attack Americans? What about Vice President Mike Pence’s erroneous assertion that Soleimani was involved in 9/11? Or was the plan all along to withdraw troops, as a letter accidentally sent to the Iraqi government suggested?
Was Trump simply trying to distract from his impeachment trial? Was the attack the knee-jerk decision of a malignant narcissist? Or was it a reasonable response following months of Iranian provocations?
Each burst of accusations and justifications has elicited a flood of public responses, expert opinions and efforts to correct a record full of hostilities and absurdities.
Many might feel bewildered and demoralized. But fans of the 19th-century French novel have seen this before.
In a 1852 letter, French author Gustave Flaubert mused, “When will we write the facts from the point of view of a cosmic joke, that is as God sees them from on high?”
He answered his own question in his 1857 novel, “Madame Bovary,” which he published during the regime of Napoleon III – the French president whose autocratic ambitions were aided by a swirl of misinformation and warring political factions.
When language loses all meaning
The main character, Emma Bovary, has devoured romantic novels and is disillusioned by a provincial existence that has proven dull. Her search for excitement and escape leads to adulterous disasters and financial ruin.
That’s a common enough premise, but what makes “Madame Bovary” unique is its insistence on the unreliability of narratives, phrases, descriptions and words. All the characters, from the callow manipulators to the well-meaning dullards, are awash in cliché. Emma and her future lover, Léon, declare that they love sunsets by the seaside, though neither has been to the ocean. The pharmacist Homais counsels prudence to others, though no one listens, and he himself is ruthlessly ambitious; the novel ends with him receiving the cross of the Legion of Honor. Léon tells Emma that he wanted to be buried in a rug she gave him, though the narrator reveals that this is false.
It isn’t even that everyone in the novel lies; some earnest characters really mean what they say. The problem is that language itself has had the meaning drained out of it by a combination of insincerity, repetition and bombast. In a famous scene at an agricultural fair, the audience of attentive townspeople hangs on every word of a mind-numbing, meandering speech about crops: “Here we have the vine, there we have the cider apple, further on we have cheese, and flax!”
When the fireworks planned for the event’s grand finale sputter out, the newspaper nonetheless reports that they went off without a hitch, describing them as a “veritable kaleidoscope, a true stage-setting for an opera.” No one cares that the description is made up.
The ultimate punchline of Flaubert’s cosmic joke is that the narrator himself is a master of subtle confusion. He starts the story in the first person, positioning himself as a schoolmate of Emma’s husband, before changing abruptly to the third person. Some of his accounts are straightforward and dispassionate. Others are entirely confounding. Descriptions of a boy’s cap, a wedding cake and a medical device are so detailed – and yet so baffling – that readers find themselves unable to even imagine what they might look like.
“I want to produce such an impression of utter weariness and ennui,” Flaubert later wrote in the plans for a subsequent literary project, “that my readers will imagine the book could only have been written by a cretin.”
France in political turmoil
Flaubert didn’t write “Madame Bovary” in a vacuum. As he was starting the novel in 1851, elected President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was staging the coup d’état that would transform him from president to emperor.
Roughly 10,000 political opponents were deported to penal colonies. Victor Hugo, a staunch opponent of the coup, fled to Brussels, while Alexis de Tocqueville retired from political life to avoid joining the regime.
French citizens found themselves bewildered and disoriented. Journalist and politician Eugène Ténot, writing an account of the coup in 1868, warned readers that “no truthful narrative of that event has been published in France.” He also remarked that “narratives written in troubled times are always imbued with partiality, exaggeration, injustice, even bad faith.”
In an open letter published in December 1851, Bonaparte announced the dissolution of the National Assembly, which he called a “hotbed of conspiracies.” In January 1852 he put in place a new constitution, all the while accusing “démagogues” of spreading “fausses nouvelles” (“fake news”). In December 1852, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Napoléon III. France’s Second Empire commenced.
Described as “the first modern dictator” and “one of the first modern leaders to rule by propaganda,” Bonaparte went from being France’s first elected president to its last emperor. The Second Empire lasted until 1870, when the emperor, conscious of his declining popularity, declared war on Prussia – and lost.
France’s political upheaval, misinformation wars, sporadic uprisings and public confusion likely left a deep impression on Flaubert.
Americans today might sympathize with his characters, who exist in an endless vortex of repetition, insincerity and stupidity.
Recent technological advances are partially to blame.
Over the past decade, abundant research has emerged on media oversaturation, narrative overload and the deluge of digital images – and what this does to the brain. Incessant stimuli and distractions lead to memory impairment, confusion and troubles with retention.
These conditions are ripe for political warfare.
In his 2014 book “The Contradictions of Media Power,” media studies professor Das Freedman wrote that, in times of political instability, “existing narratives are under stress and audiences themselves are actively seeking out new perspectives.” Information wars and fake news seem to be endemic during times of political upheaval.
In many ways, we’re living out an extreme version of the cosmic joke Flaubert envisioned.
A continual stream of tedious lies, meaningless clichés and empty grandstanding has disillusioned Americans just as much as it confounded Emma Bovary. Lieuvain’s boring, bizarre address at the agricultural fair has its modern equivalents – think of Trump’s meandering rally speeches, or his complaints about toilet flushing and cancer-causing windmills. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes is currently suing a fictitious cow for defamation, while the president’s supporters applauded the statement that there was a war on “Thanksgiving.”
With the assassination of Soleimani, disregard for truth and reality – and examples of Madame Bovary-esque word salad – remains as blatant as ever. Mike Pence’s reference to Soleimani’s involvement in 9/11 is as detached from reality as Emma’s vision of Roman ruins bordering a forest of tigers, camels, swans, sultans and English ladies.
The flood of narrative confusion continues unabated. Only time will tell if Iran becomes the Prussia of 21st-century America.