Study Hacks Blog

On the Exceptionalism of Books in an Age of Tweets

June 27th, 2020 · 43 comments

Early in his 1994 essay collection, The Gutenberg Elegies, literary critic Sven Birkerts tells a story about his experience teaching an undergraduate course on short stories. He started his students easy, with some Washington Irving, then moved on to Hawthorne and Poe before arriving at Henry James.

It was here that his class “derailed.”

He tried to solicit opinions on the story he’d selected, but came up short. “My students could barely muster the energy for a thumbs-up or -down,” he writes. “It was as though some pneumatic pump had sucked out the last dregs of their spirits.”

As he probed, Birkerts realized the issue wasn’t localized; it wasn’t just the vocabulary, or the diction, or the specific references. The root drove deeper:

“They were not, with few exceptions, readers — never had been; that they had always occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density.”

As he reflected on this reality he came to realize that the implications were “staggering.” This was not just a “generational disability,” but instead a “permanent turn” in the human endeavor.

It’s easy to dismiss such sentiments as nostalgia: everything changes; it’s reactionary to become too enthralled with any particular aging technology. But Birkerts convincingly argues for a literary exceptionalism of sorts:

“For in fact, our entire collective subjective history — the soul of our societal body, is encoded in print. Is encoded, and has for countless generations been passed along by way of the word, mainly through books.”

As I elaborated in last week’s episode of my podcast, Neil Postman argues that it was the introduction of mass-produced longform writing that really unleashed human potential — ushering in the modes of critical, analytical understanding that birthed both the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, the foundations of modernity. It allowed us to efficiently capture complex thought in all its nuance, then build on it, layer after layer, nudging forward human intellectual endeavor.

Writing was not just another technology, in other words, but the cognitive lodestone that attracted all advances that followed.

Which is why Birkerts was troubled in the early 1990s to see an emergent electronic culture destabilize this medium.

It’s also why in 1985, Neil Postman described a similar ominous premonition as he surveyed the impact of television.

And it’s why today, as I see more of our political and philosophical discourse mediated through Tweets, I despair, but as I also see the emergence of longform audio and the resurgence of audio books, I feel hope.

As I elaborated in my podcast, the medium through which you mediate the world matters. An app on your phone can offer you diversion or fleeting catharsis. On the other hand, something more lexicographically substantial  — though perhaps, as Birkert’s students discovered, more difficult to consume — can often offer true progress.

43 thoughts on “On the Exceptionalism of Books in an Age of Tweets

  1. Dev says:

    Great observation. “The Shallows” goes into the history of the invention of media, especially the written word, and its evolution into modern forms. There’s a great quote in there about Henry James being too difficult for iGen to understand–maybe not too difficult, but demanding patience that they could no longer give.

    On a related note, I’d like to ask you what are some high-quality analog media you engage in your own life, or something in addition to reading books, socializing, and playing guitar that you’ve discovered lately. I think there are ways to reconnect computers to a deeper way of life, whether it’s for learning skills like programming or language learning, facilitating games with voice or video chat during COVID-19, or reading blog posts and other longform that have been undercut by tweets and Facebook posts.

    As a person in my late twenties, I always worry that (over)use of technology has in some way affected the development and maturation of my prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that are essential for, ironically, being able to handle multitasking in a very complex technological world. We definitely need to know more about the dangers of these new media to developing brains, as well as give people compelling alternatives.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Carr’s book is great as well (was a finalist for the Pulitizer). I think he was drawing from (or inspired by) Birkert’s earlier book when he gave his James example.

      In terms of good analog activity suggestions, one thing I’ve noticed is that anything that requires the development of skill or connoisseurship is good for the brain. It could be intellectual skill (like slowly trying to master a certain literature or philosophy); or a physical skill (bread baking, gardening, tested.com-style making), or the development of taste (I spent some time back before I had a lot of kids really learning to understand/appreciate beer).

  2. Z says:

    Funny how Mr Postman’s book always seems to follow me through life. My first encounter with Amusing Ourselves to Death was my senior year of college, it was required reading for Dr Johnson’s capstone course. Every morning, he requested a student go get the New York Times. We would then spend a good portion of our class reading the op-Ed. He too saw that my generation was losing its intimacy with reading. What a profound effect that book and Dr Johnson had on me. There after, I deleted my Facebook and all social media in 2014. Thanks to Mr Postman, I saw that my generations medium ‘the message ‘ was social media. And I think in a way you are the next big advocate of living a fulfilling life, thank you for a wonderful post, Dr Newport. Your work continues to shape my life.

  3. Kian says:

    As a millennial i see my generation is burning under the fire of ambition of Tech industry, which is not so deliberate,maybe. The power of focus is becoming more and more scarce and being disconnected and offline is becoming near impossible and even a luxury.
    Great post.

  4. Kristi Williams says:

    This is a great assessment! I am in my mid 40s and began a life-long love affair with reading when I was in kindergarten. I was hoping my oldest son, who is now 22, would also be a reading enthusiast. Not! Maybe the littlest one will join me hahaha. Seriously, I believe, what you’ve observed is why so many who don’t choose to challenge and invigorate their minds regularly with reading material of substance and complexity, experience lackluster creativity and seemingly non-existent imaginative faculties. I was reviewing the comments of a YouTube channel I enjoy where the creator recites books of various 20th century metaphysical authors. Interestingly, another follower made a statement that his introductions were too long and to get to it. This was a one hour reading, which is the creator’s minimum length of uploads. I challenged that commenter to look within and question why they were wanting the creator to “hurry up”. Beautifully, that follower did see the error in not allowing himself to get prepped, including receiving some background details for the reading and merely wanting something that’s the equivalent of an exquisite meal made-to-order to a mediocre fast food combo slung out of a drive thru window!

    1. Amanda Harrison says:

      Hi Kristi, would you mind sharing the YouTube channel you mention in your comment? That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for!

    2. Kristi Williams says:

      Hi Amanda! Absolutely, the creator is Brian Scott and here’s the link:

      https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCOgXHr5S3oF0qetPfqxJfSw

  5. Greg says:

    Cal:

    I would absolutely love a podcast on where and exactly how you find your long articles. For example, if you have a RSS feed set up to find articles which feed are you using and exactly How do you have it set up to find authors/articles you find intriguing. Keep up the great work. I really enjoy your podcasts.

  6. I got to you thanks to a YouTube video of his talk ted. I was born in 1995 and throughout my growth the educators of my academic life never encouraged reading. The same thing happened with my classmates, despite that I remember in primary school having read some books on my own. At the beginning of high school YouTube entered my life, I am afraid to know how much time of my life I despise consuming videos without questioning it. Despite the fact that he used to consume personal development videos, many times in the feed videos were crossed without any value. After I started to get interested in minimalism I got to your talk ted and it caught my attention completely. I read his books and that was the gateway to other books that I have been acquiring, a while ago I deleted my personal networks and only left my business accounts that have no friends. Although it is difficult to acquire the habit of reading, little by little I have been achieving it. I was able to drastically lower my cell phone use and only use it for work. Thanks to that, my results have improved greatly and my approach makes me more productive. Thanks Cal
    PD: Sorry for my English, I’m from Argentina.

    1. Amanda Harrison says:

      Don’t apologise for your English, it’s great and you should not feel bad for knowing more than one language, that in itself is a great achievement!

  7. JH says:

    It’s pretty remarkable how easier it is to digest text, whether that be a journal article or a blog post if I spend the day without distractions. I’m a digital native and I don’t know a world before personal computers, phones, and ubiquitous internet. I love those things; it’s my life, it’s my career and passion. But I’m also glad I went through an extended period of time in my adolescence without a smartphone which gave me a lifelong reading habit.

  8. solar says:

    I think this directly plays a role in cancel culture. Instead of long discourse on a subject, we should communicate in 240char slogans. The slogans become the discourse, and the only question from there is whether a person who disagrees should be cancelled or not.

    We see this happening with JK Rowling. If all you can tweet is “trans women are women”, there is not room for discourse. The slogan is oversimplified. Perhaps we need to discuss how, as a society, men and women are pressured into gender roles that need not exist, and that there’s more room for overlap than we currently allow. Perhaps we can also acknowledge that males do not belong in women’s rape shelters or women’s sports. But that discourse gets lost.

    The world is not simple. We need room for nuance.

    1. Katy O'Grady says:

      “The world is not simple.” You have hit such a crucial point that relates to so many current issues in the U.S. (and elsewhere, of course). Nicely said. We’d all like simple answers, but that’s wishful thinking.

  9. George says:

    I’m heartened to see how many of my friends have Kindles stuffed with books. Also – by this little boy, caught with my little mirrorless device, reading a book in Tresidder Union at Stanford amidst a sea of electronic appendices: https://www.lwsphotos.com/Designers/Latest-Extracurricular/i-cH4mrJS/A. During the Great Depression publishing houses did fairly well – Random House and others survived nicely. If the economy should crumble, perhaps people will at least return to reading.

    1. Madeleine says:

      What a beautiful and inspiring image. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Ann says:

    I dunno’. Just something funny about the title ‘Exceptionalism of Books’ where you are actually pushing for people to go to your podcast.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      As I elaborate in the article, longform content is the ingredient that’s important, so books, longform audio and audiobooks share a similar cognitive category…

  11. This is so very troubling. I see it in my graduate students and Postdocs. They have an alarming ignorance of the literature. Movies watched streaming on their phones and tablets, well they are experts there. I ask them how many books they read a year. I was utterly appalled on the paucity of reading these young people do. When I tell them I read 20-40 books a year – and not entertainment novels, but to dive deep and learn something new – they seem astonished. Of course, I am sure they dismiss this as well, he is the old senior professor and of course he reads. How do we turn this around? I would love to have a spirited discussion sometime on ways to reach our young people.

    1. I’ve seen this trending with fiction writing for at least twenty years. Many writers learn how to write books, even action scenes, by watching movies instead of reading books. If they need to know how to do something, they search online for it or go ask on a message board another writer at the same level. The result is more of a checklist to basic skills rather than actual learning.

      I’ve been exploring older writing craft books from 70s and 80s, written by writers who came out of the pulp era. It’s shocking how dumbed down we’ve gotten on writing craft because of movies and the internet.

    2. James says:

      I think a big part of the issue is that these different media offer different advantages and work with different information differently, and we need to account for that.

      A few examples may illustrate what I mean.

      I enjoy learning about the Middle Ages. I have a pretty good library on the subject–better than George R. R. Martin’s, at least. The problem is, history books tend to focus on nobles, war, and artifacts. Finding information on, say, what the average soldier ate on campaign, or Medieval wood-working techniques, is tricky if not impossible. YouTube, in contrast, offers a number of well-researched channels that focus on exactly that.

      Similarly, I can better learn how to crochet a new stitch by watching a video than reading a book. I can see how the hook and yarn interact as the stitch is being made. Most books are frankly horrible at teaching this–the pictures are designed by and for people with a fair amount of experience crocheting. Now that i have more experience I understand what something like “ch 3, dc7, repeat for all sides” means–but when you’re starting out it’s pure nonsense and actually seeing the process helps.

      To give a scientific example: I once watched a video at a conference of an octopus ripping off its own arms as a defense mechanism. Once I’d seen the video the paper made sense, but the process is difficult to understand without seeing it.

      I think the key here is to not fight video as a medium for transmitting knowledge, but rather to figure out what it’s good for. Teach people how to use it appropriately to gain knowledge. It should be used as one source of knowledge among many–alongside books, hands-on experience, journal articles, lectures, field trips, and other means of gaining knowledge.

  12. I’m on both sides of the fence on this. I remember, in my classes on comparative history, having a discussion of the rise of the printed book and how people lamented that it was a denigrating turn in the way we think. It turned us away from holding great bodies of knowledge in our heads, they thought. And it turned us away from sharing in community to a more solitary kind of learning.

    I’m not sure where we are now. My biggest fear is that we outsource our knowledge nearly entirely. That we hook ourselves, literally electronically hook ourselves, into a vast network of digital content. We end up with access to far more content but we have far fewer tools for digesting it and interpreting it. That we loose any form of commonplace book whether in our head or on paper.

    I’d be interested to know your take on that and on commonplace books, Cal.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The idea that there was great lamentation about the arrival of the printed word is overblown. The underlying reference for this claim is typically Plato’s Phadreus dialogue, but if you read it closer, Socrates is not really saying the written word is itself bad, but arguing that interactive dialogue (his Socratic method) is crucial for philosophy, and a book doesn’t talk back.

  13. Yaniv says:

    Great post, Cal. On the subject of reading, do you have any strategies or tips for remembering what you read? How do you annotate and take notes on your books?

  14. I realize how inappropriate referencing reddit is going to be…but one of the joys of following /r/books and /r/suggestmeabook is the number of people that post who just discovered a newly kindled passion for reading and want to find more to scratch their itches.

  15. Brandon L says:

    My main gripe against audio books is that whenever I listen to them I find myself doing something else at the same time, that and that it just seems a little inherently lazy. Lazy multitasking? I feel like I get maybe 70% of the content at best. Sitting down with a book in my hand while my eyeballs read the words on the page and my brain processes takes more effort. For me anyway. And it seems like I get more than the gist of it too. I just bought “Amusing Ourselves…”. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Deb says:

      Something else I noticed with audiobooks is the dynamic of “reading with your mind’s voice” get eliminated, I wonder what difference does the “listening” and “reading” dynamics create?

    2. Study Hacks says:

      This might just be because I spent my entire adult life in academia, but I find non-fiction works well in audiobook format because it’s the same idea as listening to a lecture (which I do quite a lot of…).

      A couple times a year, I’ll tackle a Great Courses collection during my commute to Georgetown. What I usually do is take notes on what I heard on my laptop as soon as I pull into my parking spot, while it’s all still fresh. I do find, however, that if anything novel happens with my route (construction, a crash, etc.) I completely loose the thread and have to rewind.

      1. James says:

        I find it to be the opposite. A fictional book is great in audiobook format–it’s like someone telling you a story. Even radio plays (the BBC has a radio play series for the Jack Aubrey boks that I’ve greatly enjoyed).

        Non-fiction–especially dense scientific works–I need physical copies of. I’m constantly flipping back and forth between sections as ideas connect with one another, or looking at the references to find additional information, or pulling out other books that touch on the same topic to check certain concepts. I highlight and annotate the books (there’s always some information missing, due to the nature of the medium). Plus, geology is a very visual science, so there are things like maps and diagrams that you have to have in addition to a book.

        In other words, non-fiction is a more interactive reading experience.

  16. Alan says:

    Great article Cal. I’ve really enjoyed your work over the last few months as I am making changes to experience the deep life you write and speak about. One topic I’ve wondered about is your take on long form digital media. Do you use a Kindle e-reader? Do you listen to audiobooks and/or podcasts? If so, do you find yourself using these digital formats more or less than physical books?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      All of the above.

      Physical books remains my preference, but I’ll go kindle if I don’t want to wait for delivery. For demanding books, I’ll almost always use physical, as I have an easier time mustering concentration when I have a physical object to manipulate.

  17. JR says:

    The observation that future generations will forsake the treasure of knowledge stored in books terrifying but somewhat overly dramatic because I was a college student in the early 90s. I struggled greatly through undergraduate engineering school due my Catholic high school failing to attract math and science professors due to the low salary. My engineering professors at a “christian college” had no interest in my plight and I was able to save myself by digging into all the engineering books in the library. Eventually, all the students in my engineering class would come to me to solve difficult engineering problems because I learned how to learn engineering from the books in the library. College force me as a shallow media consumer to become deeply connected to our literary treasure trove of knowledge that is the college library so hope is not lost.

    I may be an outlier because I rarely watched much television as a kid since my alcoholic father monopolized the television to feed his insatiable football addiction. The only good thing about my Catholic education is the tremendous amount of books that were required to be read throughout the year that gave me an appreciation for our literary history.

    1. Deb says:

      This reminds me of one of the greatest scientists and arguably the greatest experimenter of all time – Michael Faraday.
      Faraday had a very basic school education, most of what drove him towards science was his reading while he was working under a bookseller. His job was to bind books and after he was done with his work, he would stay in the shop reading books which ignited his interest in science. He later got a ticket to the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture by Humphry Davy (this tradition of Christmas Lectures has been sustained to this day), Davy was a big name in chemistry and he demonstrated some magic tricks using electricity, electricity was not put to any practical use at the time (Faraday would make that possible), these tricks mesmerized Faraday and he made notes of the lecture and other writings of Davy and submitted it to him – Davy employed him as his lab assistant.

      Faraday would go on to make a primitive electric motor and unveil the branches of Electrostatics and Electrochemistry and even replace Davy as the head of the Royal Institution, Faraday’s work was the cornerstone of Maxwell’s work on Electrodynamics, through which Einstein found the relativity paradox – which ultimately led Einstein to Special Relativity.

      The knowledge and skills Faraday achieved, with so little background, through long hours of reading and thinking is something that will be very difficult to replicate today.
      Love the post! Cal!

      1. Study Hacks says:

        There’s a great chapter on Faraday in Robert Greene’s book, Mastery

        1. Deb says:

          Thanks for the recommendation!

          The stories of these “Monster Minds” as Richard Feynman called them, really fuel my ambitions in academia.

          I earlier used to limit myself to the works, like reading S. Chandrashekhar’s translation of Principia but after coming across James Gleick’s Genius (RP Feynman’s biography) and Isaac Newton, my thirst for more anecdotes has become unquenchable.

          But after reading such accounts, one is forced to question whether the same level of mastery is in one’s reach or not?
          How do you deal with such doubts, if they even arise for you?
          (Some background: I’m a graduate student)

      2. Ian Howlett says:

        It’s surprising how many of these old-time great people died young. For example, James Clerk Maxwell died aged 48 of abdominal cancer.

        I’m already early forties and I feel like I’m still just getting started. I’d better get a move on!

  18. It so happens that I finally deleted the Twitter app from my phone a week ago (and the other social apps). I’ve been reading books much more instead. I’m really enjoying it.
    Also, Postman’s *Amusing Ourselves to Death* is one of my faves!

  19. Imran ali mullick says:

    Can i join your community

  20. Nick Miller-Maljuzic says:

    I teach middle school and high school sciences in a parochial school. When my kids enter my room speaking is forbidden, even to me, even before the bell rings. They go to the bookshelves I had installed where I have a couple of hundred books: science, young adult novels, adult novels, history, DK books on many subjects, field guides to animals, the Darwin Awards, all sorts of things, and they read until I finish taking roll. It is odd what they pick up. The whole activity lasts only minutes but it has helped make some of them readers.

  21. What if when i’m reading I use my mobile on airplane mode, without distractions and do not interrupt mode, and this is how I consume my books, I don’t check other apps etc, when I consume books on my mobile I just consume them… what is the opinion on this?

  22. Amy says:

    I really appreciated this line, especially, Mr. Newport…,”Writing was not just another technology, in other words, but the cognitive lodestone that attracted all advances that followed.” I agree and it’s food for thought indeed. I’m hopefully raising readers here through our home educating journey and it’s been awesome to see some fruit of that in my older children.

  23. Barbara says:

    I’ve noticed this too. My university students don’t read comfortably (and I’m a Lit Prof–one area in which students, ostensibly, like to read). Of course some students love reading but I have definitely noticed a shift in the last five years or so.

    I wonder about the media differences too: what’s the difference between reading a book on one’s computer (through whatever platform), listening to it, and reading the material object? For my part, I notice that it often more difficult to remember what I read online because, in general, I can’t locate it on a page (some e-readers are better than others for this).

    Finally, I came across this interview with Carr that apparently refers to “deep reading” (I’ve only read the summary): https://www.vox.com/podcasts/2020/7/1/21308153/the-ezra-klein-show-the-shallows-twitter-facebook-attention-deep-reading-thinking.

Leave a Reply to Martín Vassallo Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *