The idea for this blog started as a complaint against some of my students who seem rather reluctant to read a book. Too many of the essays I have been marking have included a bunch of quotations from the internet (sometimes correctly referenced) but very few references to books or journal articles. I have been wondering if the skills needed to read in depth material (or at least, any motivation to do so) are declining rapidly amongst the generation for whom the term ‘research’ is synonymous with ‘google’. This is not to say that I enjoyed all the articles I was advised to read at university. Some of them were quite impenetrable and I might argue badly written. If your aim is writing is to make yourself look clever rather than engaging your reader then I’m not sure you should be surprised if no-one reads your work (though they may cite you to see if some cleverness rubs off).
Material on the internet, on the other hand, falls or stands on how engaging it is (or how well it is tagged with keywords perhaps, in the case of being spotted by search engines). There is a wealth of insightful and intelligent comment and discussion online, if you know where to look. There is clearly an awful lot of dross too, but I guess that’s the nature of a platform where anyone can contribute and a high proportion of those are trying to sell you something. Search tools can be phenomenally helpful – but I’m not sure how far they promote reading.
A good search tool used well can help you find just about anything (though it has yet to find my crochet hooks – it could help me buy more of course). Using quotation marks for phrases in Google can identify sources students have used for their essays, for example, just as easily as it found the source for them in the first place. Finding a helpful quotation is not the same as reading, though. I might find an academic who says exactly the point I want to make, or argue against. I can quote them properly and discuss the merits of their argument and contrast with other authors (NB I might get a good mark for that) but actually, that’s still not the same as reading the paper in full and understanding what the author is saying. I was very pleased with some of the articles I found and downloaded during my PhD studies. That’s not to say I read them. One of my friends pointed out that it’s only when you print them out that the knowledge is transferred. Hmm.
Thinking about all this I’ve been challenged about how much I actually read. I have numerous books on my shelves that I have browsed but not read. Some of them look really interesting (and perhaps make me look interesting by the fact they are on my shelf… I can hope!) I spend a lot more time browsing the internet than I do reading anything on paper these days. I read a couple of novels over the new year which I enjoyed but I’m not sure they could really be called enlightening. Reading for escapism can be great – but I’m sure reading to expand my mind would be a better aim. Instead I’m probably just as addicted to facebook as the students I teach.
Even my reading of the Bible is probably more browsing these days. I can find relevant verses to link to on my blog here or find in church or share with a friend. Search engines like Bible Gateway are very useful in helping you locate passages around a keyword, and I still use my concordance as well. Sermons or studies I attend sometimes seem to be a collection of relevant verses around a theme that could have been found in the same way. I’m not saying there isn’t insight to be gained from reading a collection of verses from the Bible, but I don’t think it’s the same as reading a passage in context and actually thinking and praying about it. And that’s a challenge for me just as much as it might be for anyone else.