The end of attentive reading

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to expand on his or her essay. This week’s guest blogger is Prof. Lutz Koepnick of Vanderbilt University.

Music is so omnipresent today that it has become difficult to escape its reach even for more than an hour. In her recent book, Ubiquitous Listening, the musicologist Anahid Kassabian argues that the constant presence of music in modern life has changed the very nature of listening, of how we attend to, recall, and are affected by musical sounds.

Traditional concepts of attentive listening are outdated, she argues; we need to develop frameworks that take inattentive and distracted hearing seriously, unless we want to completely miss the realities of listening today.

It might be time to apply similar views to today’s reading practices.

Inundated by printed, projected, or electronically displayed words everywhere, we probably spend more time skimming and scanning text than we devote time to reading something deeply from A to Z. Meanwhile, our existing cultural and academic frameworks continue to value depth over shallowness, profoundly focused over fickle, inattentive activities. Are these norms anachronistic? Do they blind us to what readers are actually doing today?

We need to find a way to take inattentive and distracted reading seriously without endorsing a culture that produces ever-shorter attention spans for the sake of increasing economic profit.

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