In a similar vein to the previous article in which we talked about disinformation as one of the threats to democracy, this time we refer to the importance of the ability to read complex texts as a means of acquiring critical thinking. “Well-informed citizens” or “the solution often lies in education” are ideas common to both articles.
Margaret Atwood’s phrase is used as the closing sentence of the Ljubljana Manifesto, which is the document that prompted this reflection and which was presented at the last Frankfurt Book Fair, where Slovenia was the guest of honour. The Manifesto has been drafted by an international group of university professors, authors, participants in the book industry, authorities in the field of education and culture.
The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto
The central idea of the Manifesto is that in complex times like these it is important for citizens to be able to read complex texts. Reading comprehension is declining, and this is a fundamental and necessary ability to articulate a certain depth of thought. Reading is one of the main paths to personal development.
It will probably not be an initiative that will get much media coverage, so the infinitesimal amount that everyone can give it will count. In any case, the institutional support of the European Union is being sought in order to bring the issue into a wider public debate.
Let’s be clear that when we talk about complex texts we are really referring to almost anything that goes beyond a headline, a tweet or a short article. A press report, a novel, an essay, a scientific paper on any discipline, an article in a blog, etc. And it is also applicable to what is listened to in a long format: an in-depth interview, a monographic podcast, which is often no longer listened to, but only heard, as if it were background music.
The Manifesto points out that being able to read complex texts is a kind of prerequisite for being a democrat. In order to participate as informed citizens in a democratic society, one needs reading skills that go beyond the mere decoding of texts, because that is what allows critical thinking to exist, which is what teaches us or helps us to make complex decisions.
In the Manifesto’s own words, “without it [critical thinking], we are unprepared to counter populist simplifications, conspiracy theories and misinformation and, consequently, we become vulnerable to manipulation […] [Close reading] is our most powerful tool for analytical and critical thinking. It exercises metacognition and cognitive patience, broadens our conceptual capacities, trains empathy and perspective-taking, social skills that are indispensable for informed citizens in a democratic society”.
We all want to think that we can read well and that we understand what we read, but the training to read well is becoming less and less profound, and the pre-existing ability is deteriorating.
It is said that the digital world has meant that today we read more than ever before in history, but there is also agreement that this has become a superficial reading, and that the habit – and with it, the ability – to read long texts is becoming less and less common. And without this ability, we are left only with the headlines, with fragments without context, which will generate an almost instinctive reaction, devoid of reflection, which, in general, will tend to be simple and polarised.
In this regard, the Manifesto highlights that, “while digital technologies offer great potential for new forms of reading, recent empirical research shows that the digital environment is having a negative impact on reading, in particular long reading and reading comprehension. It is also unclear whether the transition to digital media actually delivers on its promise to improve learning outcomes...”.
Along with these technological factors there are others (sometimes associated with them) that conspire against leisurely reading: laziness, lack of attention, lack of time, impatience, perceived lack of usefulness, etc. …., and, although some of them seem more like excuses (we also need time for that eternal passing of reels and reading tweets from strangers…), with all of them a loop is formed that starts with not reading and ends up with reading worse, because reading well also requires practice.
As an example and practical translation of this deterioration, we have the data from the Pisa Report, published a few weeks ago, which shows a permanent and unstoppable worldwide reduction in reading comprehension skills (measured in 15 year olds). The report also confirms the traditional gender gap: in reading comprehension, girls score significantly higher in all countries. However, they score lower in mathematics, with the implications this has in terms of the educational and employment pathways chosen and the consequences for subsequent global wage differentiation inferred from these choices.
It is also an undisputed fact that today and in all countries the majority of readers are women. Perhaps this higher reading volume may have some correlation with better results in comprehension tests.
And what’s a lawyer doing talking about close reading?
Patient reading is essential in some professions, as is the case in the world of law: the relationships between sentences, over-understandings, texts and subtexts, ellipsis, inferences and interpretation of what is written… everything that is (and what underlies) in a legal or contractual text must be able to be decoded properly, clarifying ambiguities, filling in empty or grey areas, and this can only be done if there is an adequate reading range. This can be extrapolated to many other professional fields that use the spoken or written word as a fundamental tool.
Moreover, attentive reading is an exercise in attention that expands vocabulary and conceptual capacities. A detour here towards literature: immersion in the fiction of a novel gives us references to understand why people may act in one way or another, teaches us how to delve into different interpretations and trains us to detect contradictions and errors in the text. Novels are tools for understanding the world, they are magnifying glasses, they are channels for imagining, for putting ourselves in other situations and other skins, and for understanding human complexity and the greys of human behaviour. And to be able to do all this, it is necessary to be able to read attentively and fully.
More generally, in the now classic nine-step chain between what the sender of a message thinks and what the receiver understands (what I think, what I want to write, what I think I write, what I write, what I write, what you want to read, what you read, what you think you read, what you want to read and what you understand) there are multiple risks of misunderstanding that can be reduced if one reads and writes well.
Artificial intelligence and its relation to close reading
We cannot fail to mention here the two buzzwords: artificial intelligence. One might ask: why do I need to be able to read carefully if I can already ask an AI to do it for me and give me a summary of what I need to know? The Manifesto also indirectly points to this by saying that “because of the propensity for efficiency, the complexity of reading is seen as a problem to be solved by simplification rather than as a mirror of human complexity…”. There are two answers: first of all, because we need to retain control over the formation of one’s own opinion. And secondly, because, for now, it seems clear that human reading and writing finesse, nuance and context, and irony, are distinctly human skills, and that there will continue to be texts that an AI will not be able to fully decode, although the gap is narrowing every day.
Will an average AI soon be able to read more carefully than an average human? It is likely, and the remedy is not to limit the AI’s capabilities, but to raise those of the human. As an example, we already have the translations done by AIs, which are improving by leaps and bounds but are still not able to give a perfect response in the translation of idioms, idioms, double meanings… but they will, because it is only a matter of experience and sources.
And so the sayings, the puns, the hidden jokes, may end up disappearing, because they will become unnecessary. Perhaps we humans will end up adapting to the semantic and syntactic ranges used by AIs, which will probably dispense with those embellishments and complications that in their view will only dirty the language.
Education and the promotion of reading
Finally, let us return to the Manifesto, which closes with a call for reading education and promotion, “which must go beyond teaching basic functional and informational skills to school children and focus on the lifelong process of personal development, enhanced by higher-level reading”.
In short: the ability to read well is a tool for life, a weapon for understanding the world, and acquiring or maintaining the ability to read long texts is a form of defence in a world where everything is simplified.
If any of the above has made you shake your head up and down at any time, then please spend one more minute on this and consider joining the Ljubljana Manifesto.