First, read slowly
If my Facebook feed today is any indication, Filipinos have become more engrossed with the news and more vocal with their opinions. Back in the days of Friendster and MySpace, when online sharing was more or less just as easy, all anyone ever shared were selfies and GIFs. Now, everyone regardless of age group is talking about the President and Senator De Lima and the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Everyone’s sharing links and churning out opinion at a dizzying pace.
Which is a good sign, indicating that we are becoming a more involved public. But amid all this, a less ideal phenomenon is becoming apparent: We seem to have forgotten how to read.
Throughout elementary and high school, we read language textbooks filled with stories and essays, and at the end of each piece were comprehension tests. “What happened to the main character?” “Why do you think this happened?” “If you were the main character, what would you have done?”
Such tests obliged us to read slowly and deliberately, and over and over again if necessary. More than that, they required us to chew on the story, to ponder on its implications, and, simply, to think.
For years, we were taught to read that way. Then the internet came along and gradually, we’ve grown accustomed to fast skimming instead of deliberate reading.
Various studies support how our reading has shrunk online. One of these studies, conducted by research group Nielsen Norman, found that on average, internet users read only about 20-28 percent of words on a webpage. (So if you are still reading this piece at this point, congratulations for having a longer attention span.)
This would explain why, in the flurry of fact and opinion on the internet, many of us blindly fall for satirical articles and click-bait headlines. Probably one in every five posts in my social media feed right now is a link to a false news site or some sort of “infographic” without factual sources. Even among those who follow the news on reliable sources, it can be a challenge to sit still for a second and think about what they’ve just read before hitting the Share button.
All these allow for intense opinions based on little analysis. “[A]lthough, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other,” wrote award-winning journalist Patrick Kingsley, paraphrasing author Nicholas Carr.
So while it’s something of a modern miracle that we are collectively becoming less apathetic, we cannot afford to skip the practice of thoughtful reading as the crucial foundation for our views.
To cultivate deliberate reading, we can always start with—and return to—books. “The built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience,” author Annie Murphy Paul pointed out. Without hyperlinks, without ads, without buttons, a book compels its reader to immerse in the narrative, allowing the mind to wrap around its details and complexities.
Once we’ve spent time with a book and finished it, we can’t help but think about it. Some powerful books even give us a good “book hangover,” which makes us see the world through the lens of the material we have recently read. We read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and we want to be kind and wide-eyed like Scout. We read “1984” and we’re suddenly vigilant against a real-life totalitarian dystopia.
Engagement with the material is something we’re missing if we rely only on skimming through our news feeds. We only decode words, we have a passing reaction, and then we move on, carried by the surface current of information and misinformation. Thus, our opinions turn out to be superficial.
For our views and involvement to count, we need first to cultivate our reading skills—the ones we were taught when we first learned to read. Read slowly, deliberately, and deeply. Look for connections, evidence, and meaning. And, because online articles don’t have a comprehension test at the end, we need to be the ones to ask the questions ourselves.
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