“I can’t promise I’ll never again read the abstract instead of the article”

“I can’t promise I’ll never again read the abstract instead of the article”

Colleagues observe that many students don’t want to read anymore

16-04-2024 · Column

The signs are everywhere. On the wasteland once known as Twitter, tech bros feverishly calculate how much time you could save by reading AI-generated summaries of literary classics. Colleagues observe that many students don’t want to read anymore—that they ask for more Ted Talks and fewer academic texts, that they struggle to articulate the central message of an article or book chapter. And the call is coming from inside the house, as the saying goes: picking up my phone at the end of a long day is seductively easy next to the prospect of nodding off over my Kindle. My internet browser is so cluttered with tabs marked TO READ!! that I felt nothing but relief the last time it gave up and crashed.

Reading crisis

What’s the solution to this “reading crisis”? Is there any hope for those of us who owe so much of what they know—and who they are—to books? After all, humanities departments are being closed across the English-speaking world, and this does not bode well for those of us on its periphery either. Should we just surrender ourselves to the whirlpool of data and regard long-form reading as a relic of an earlier age?

Second-hand

I find my answer to these questions on the occasions when I do push through the Kindle drowsiness, or set aside an afternoon at a café to do some old-fashioned research. Then actively engaging in an author’s sustained, detailed argument—not giving up when I encounter a difficult, boring or even preposterous paragraph—feels radically different from reading about it second-hand. And philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s well-known maxim “the medium is the message” then seems to me more of a warning. Form cannot be separated from content, summaries are not stories, bullet points are not arguments. I can’t promise I’ll never again read the abstract instead of the article. I understand why we do it, why my students do it. But I’ll try to remember what I’m sacrificing when we do so, and take the scenic route instead of the information highway whenever I have the chance.

Elsje Fourie, assistant professor of Globalisation & Development Studies

Author: Redactie

Photo: EF

Tags: reading,book,crisis,elsje fourie,elsjefourie

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