Escaping the Shallows: Deep Reading’s Revival in the Digital Age
DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 2014
Volume 8 Number 2
, University of Iowa
Abstract: Among the many reactions against the digital revolution is a humanitarian movement toward long form online reading in collective and social networks. This movement — visible in online book clubs such as "Infinite Summer" and 1book140, websites such as longreads.com, and the trend of blogs-to-books publication — is a reaction against superficial increasingly brief headline-driven Internet news. Called to action by the threat of what critic Jessica Helfand has diagnosed as digital culture’s "narrative depravation," the deep reading revival has reclaimed narrative and returned it to the populace, transforming reading into an act of mass collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Despite studies corroborating Nicholas Carr’s claim in The Shallows (2011) that the distractions of the digital environment are anathema to immersive linear deep reading, online culture has actually enhanced and accelerated the appreciation of longer richer works through its support of "radial reading" as described by Jerome McGann. This essay argues that while the intrinsically distracting virtual geography of the Internet has threatened to diminish the role of textured narrative in our intellectual and social lives, the Web has ironically provided the media for the most salient movements in support of the deep reading it threatens to obliterate.
If journalism has begun to collapse under what is now "an Internet age, a headline age," and the "the gray text page, once a magazine staple, has been all but banished" [Carr 2011, 95], its long form offspring are thriving. The culture has rediscovered a world beyond the easy-to-browse blurbs and captions that have come to dominate magazine and newspaper formatting. Now that consumers can talk back to the performances they witness through online media, they can also consume products of intellectual culture, readings that inspire not superficial but profound commentary, in this same dialogic way. The conversation has grown, as the design of electronic products beyond long form written works now encourages social networking. The Blu-ray version of Disney’s Snow White enables viewers to chat with each other while watching the film. The Watchmen disc links directly to Facebook to allow live commentary on friends’ pages. Film aficionados now have the equivalent social viewing experience of the "bookies." Novels, as Clay Shirky contends, may have been "a side effect of living in an environment of impoverished access" when they came into popularity with the rise of the middle class at the dawn of the industrial revolution [Shirky 2009, 111]. But now, in the twenty-first century, at the apex of the digital revolution, the revival of demanding and deep long form works have left us with an embarrassment of riches not only in data, but more importantly, the richness of contact with each other. McGann had the foresight in 2001 to observe that digital technology is a boon to the humanities and the richness of deep narrative reading, warning that "the general field of humanities education and scholarship will not take the use of digital technology seriously until one demonstrates how its tools improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works" [McGann 2001, xii]. As Douglas Rushkoff reminds us in the coda of Digital Nation, technology "challenges us to serve our human values, but we must first learn what those values are" [Dretzin 2010]. As the online deep reading revival has shown, narrative — and all its media manifestations — continues to be the vehicle through which those values are expressed.