On average, we spend four hours on screens and only half an hour on books and magazines.
When children learn to write, they do not make spaces between words but line up the letters in close succession, one after the other. It looks strange but is natural. Because when we speak, we don’t pause between words, but the syllables connect smoothly. Children transcribe as it sounds.
Reading such a text is difficult, not only for those of us who need more habits. In antiquity, public reading was handled by trained lecturers, and silent reading hardly existed. Nor did the ancient scribes make spaces but wrote with scriptura continua: continuous writing, without indicating where the words begin or end. It was necessary to murmur to “let the ear bring clarity to what appeared to the eye as a continuous series of signs”, as Alberto Manguel put it.
The monks murmured their lectio divina. The spiritual reading of the monasteries was slow and sensual: you saw the syllables, tasted them in your mouth and heard them with your ears. They rolled the words on their palates like a sip of wine before swallowing.
The spaces were introduced in the eighth century and had two functions. They let readers decode the text silently, using only their eyes, which increased reading speed. At the same time, it became easier to immerse yourself in the text because you didn’t have to go back and forth on the line to understand where the words started. The spaces thus facilitated both rapid speed reading and thoughtful, deep reading.
The academics loved the gaps. They helped them immerse themselves in increasingly complex texts and allowed them to scan texts. While the monks read one book at a time, slowly and carefully, they could work on several in parallel. The spaces allowed for selective reading, allowing them to jump around among the pages searching for the passage that would complete the thesis.
After Gutenberg introduced his printing press in 1455, a flood of books swept across Europe. In the 14th century, 2.7 million books were produced, but in the 16th century, the figure was 220 million. Those who wanted to keep up had to hurry. Scholar Francis Bacon explains that only a few books “should be read in their entirety, carefully and with attention.” The rest should be skimmed.
Reading quickly becomes the melody of Enlightenment. Dr Samuel Johnson, the era’s most famous reader, cultivated his image as a super reader who decoded books by flipping through them. “We must read what people are talking about now,” he said, expressing the ethos of the Enlightenment: reading to keep up. Jean-Jacques Rousseau sighed that his contemporaries “read a lot, but only new books; or to be precise, he flips through them, not to read them but to be able to say he has read them”.
Because computers are not designed for deep reading, but their strength lies in speed, they allow us to access many texts quickly. On a typical day, we spend four hours in front of screens and only half an hour reading printed texts such as books and magazines. But today, as Gutenberg gives way to a society of screens, it is becoming all-powerful.
“How do people read online,” asks tech guru Jakob Nielsen, who answers: “They don’t.” Or, more elaborately: “Studies of how users read online show that they don’t read: Instead, they scan the text.” In his survey, 16% read online texts word for word, and the rest skimmed. The abundance of information makes attention the scarce commodity of our time.
Today, many people state that they struggle to concentrate on reading. This leads to a decline in reading comprehension. In addition, deep reading helps us connect emotionally to texts to understand others better. It also decreases when we skim. We thus lose both cognitively and emotionally.
The European education project has rested on a combination of speed and deep reading: what reading researcher Maryanne Wolf calls a “bi-literal brain” that can read in two ways. A thousand years ago, universities taught us to read quickly, but deep reading is under threat today. Therefore, universities need to review their pedagogy. Study guides emphasize speed reading, but this is not enough. We also need to teach students to read slowly and in-depth.
Literary scholar George Steiner sensed early on that the screen meant “the end of bookishness”, as he said, and argued that efforts were needed to save reading. He singled out Jewish yeshiva and Christian monasteries as ideal places where people were trained to read thoughtfully.
The formation is based on integrating several works, best done with a pen and a notepad next to a printed book. But in-depth reading is needed at universities and for political life. We live in a time where problems are becoming more complex, while experts’ comments must be contained in a tweet or a short quote. But the issues that war and climate change present us with have no simple answers. Therefore any simplification takes us further from a solution – especially when they crowd out in-depth reasoning.
Slow reading challenges us on an even deeper level. Every practice faces metaphysics, and medieval monks lingered over the exact text because they regarded existence as a magical place. Whoever stopped was rewarded by the world unfolding before his eyes. Today, this life-affirming Platonism has given way to soulless materialism, which does not allow us to travel through things towards eternity. Instead of going deep into reality, we try to accumulate as much of it as possible. The mountains of gadgets stretch towards the sky, while a new confusion of languages makes it increasingly difficult for us who build them to understand each other.
Nowadays, the spaces act merely as highways that allow us to increase our reading speed and scan information at a furious pace. We need to recover the second meaning of the spaces and let them become pauses for reflection. Because books can be magical places that open doors to other worlds – but that requires us to stop. Learning is not just an academic exercise but is necessary to break the manic dance that today’s society impoverishes our souls and the planet.