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Wen Rumin: Reading in the Information Age

MAY . 08 2017
Peking University, April 23, 2017: Every World Reading Day, we advocate reading with great fanfare. But what is the actual situation? Don’t be blindly optimistic. While it is true that people’s reading amount has increased as digital reading brings much convenience to us, but the truth that is our reading quality is terribly low. People are increasingly keen on popular, entertaining, and fragmented reading materials, while the amount of paper reading, or genuine reading, is decreasing.
 
Data supports the gloomy view. A recent report on the behavior of social media application users shows that nearly 40% of users spend an average of 6 hours per day online. They mainly go online to use WeChat, get in touch with acquaintances, and obtain information through WeChat and Weibo. The internet makes communication easier, but more time-consuming as well, thus decreasing our time in reading and thinking. Some may suggest that online reading is another form of reading. However, we hardly choose to really read online, but mostly opt for recreational and entertaining reading materials. The arrival of the Information Age causes some problems, and puts forward new requirements for reading.
 
How to view online reading
 
The internet and digital technology make reading more convenient, and bring an unprecedented reading experience at the same time. Readers can get reading materials cheaply (or even freely), obtain and store massive reading information, read at anytime and anywhere, and even read interactively. This is a different reading mode, brand new, and not completely familiar to recent society. With the popularization of We-Media such as WeChat and Weibo, reading expands its range, becoming more accessible to common people, and enhancing communication among social groups, especially between acquaintances.
 
We should fully understand and support young people favoring new media reading and making use of online reading. But while approving online reading, we face some new problems. Nowadays, we are not in lack of books any more, but have trouble choosing the worthy ones among them.
 
The invention of the internet is a milestone in human history. It gives people much convenience, and makes cultural exchange fast, but it also brings unexpected problems, which are still unsettled.
 
Many people are now obsessed with the internet. When we need to check our computers or mobile phones for new information at intervals, we become absent-minded easily, and can hardly concentrate for a long time to read a book or write an article. If we completely depend on the internet for memorizing, memory will be dominated by technology. How will this affect the formation of human emotions, character, and thinking?
 
At present, most college students rely on the internet to obtain information for papers, and don’t need to take so much trouble collecting data as they used to. Consequently, many get into the habit of opening search engines as soon as problems occur, even without thinking. This is convenient indeed, but online information is often mixed with both truths and falsehoods, not necessarily reliable. How can we take it for granted? Moreover, the behavior of getting the result without the process does not help to improve our thinking, but may generate idleness by contrary. When trying to understand something, we need to have contact with information and gradually become familiar with it. It is during this process that we gain significant perceptual cognition. Depending too much on online conclusions without the critical thinking process will easily lead to a fragmented thinking pattern.
 
Does the use of the internet have an impact on the brain? The answer is yes. Tied to mobile phones, e-mail, WeChat and Weibo, which so often brings excessive disturbances, we are often distracted and don’t have an undivided time period to figure out a problem, thus gradually developing a fragmented thinking mode. On the way to work, during meeting breaks, while waiting, or even at a party with friends and relatives, smartphone addicts try to make use of any piece of time to look for a suitable location to immerse themselves in their mobile phones, getting drowned in information, and building social relationships in a virtual world. The tendency of consumerism to invade the reading market becomes more evident. Due to the enormous pressure of living and working, urban residents are more eager to gain recreational leisure rather than knowledge through reading. However, we should be wary that while enjoying the reading experience of mobile devices, smartphone addicts become involved in the “attention economy” unconsciously.
 
Reading through mobile devices has become a lifestyle, but it is hard to tell whether it is a beneficial lifestyle or not. Some high-class private schools abroad don’t allow children to bring their mobile phones to school.
 
There is currently little control over network media, and information is mostly released anonymously. Inevitably, cultural garbage and even reflection of the dark side of human nature flood the internet. These worthless pieces of information may have a negative influence on the philosophy, mentality and IQ of people who are exposed to the internet every day.
 
By the way, it is necessary to mention digital teaching. From primary school to university, teachers are required to prepare PowerPoints. They are clear and easy to remember, however, students may choose to download PowerPoints instead of taking notes. Besides, excessive use of PowerPoints may distract students, and hinder their reading and thinking capacity from improving, especially in literary courses, where intensive reading and full engagement is needed.
 
Also, network literature should not be neglected. This kind of reading unprecedentedly breaks through the culture circle of elites, and makes reading available to the public. Featuring vivid stories and entertaining content, network literature is suitable for browsing in the era of fast food. Overplayed and sentimental plots catch people’s eyes. The readers of network literature are mainly high school and college students, and commuters who have just graduated. Although this kind of reading contributes to some kind of cultural consumption, it basically belongs to the category of “shallow reading.”
 
Readers may not be aware of the fact that online fiction writers, popular or unknown, regard the commercial property of their works as the most important. The main purpose of writing is to draw attention and stimulate consumption. As to the readers, they have changed from a traditional reader to a fan, or a consumer. This new kind of reading naturally affect their social, aesthetic and imaginative mode. For those who are accustomed to online reading and spend a lot of time sitting in front of the desk, reading a paper book has already become a luxurious and exotic activity. Fragmented reading has taken up most of their leisure time.
 
The reading amount in the Information Age has increased considerably, but the reading quality has not been promoted. There are three kinds of reading: reading for entertainment, reading for obtaining information, and reading for thinking. The current problem is that reading for entertainment and information occupies the majority of our reading, while reading for thinking is squeezed out.
 
Reading pattern can affect thinking mode to a certain extent. The reading mode led by new media tends to form fragmented and homogenous thinking modes, while the personalized perceptions prevalent in the printing age may decrease.
 
Reading in the Information Age is convenient, and has enormous potential which previous reading modes do not possess. We should make good use of the advantages, especially when doing scientific research, which is now inseparable from internet resources. As to the new digital reading mode, we should actively follow it, rather than negatively resist it. However, we need to remember that as every coin has two sides, the new reading mode cannot completely replace the traditional way of reading. Paper reading and digital reading can coexist. Different people may have different preferences for reading, but if online reading substitutes for paper reading, we’ll lose many of the benefits of reading. Generally speaking, online reading is more suitable for “shallow reading,” while paper reading is more suitable for “deep reading.” It is better to opt for paper reading when reading classics, for online reading is easier to be disturbed by other messages, thus making the thinking and feeling process “shallow.”
 
Traditional paper reading itself is an aesthetic process. From the binding to the format, from the layout to the paper itself, we can always find unique aesthetic features. The origin and circulation of every single book may have its cultural memory. We often talk about the admirable traits of “owning a library” and “scholarliness”, but it is not likely available on the internet and through electronic devices. After all, reading is a life experience, and a lifestyle as well. No matter how modern information technology develops, traditional reading cannot and should not be replaced. We should become familiar with and make full use of online reading in the Information Age, but also need to be aware of the possible problems it brings simultaneously.
 
Resist the anxiety caused by excessive information
 
The social mindset nowadays is relatively anxious. We can attribute this widespread anxiety to cultural conflict, social transformation, marketization, polarization, or employment problems, which beset college students. But we should never ignore the deeper cause of general anxiety: excessive information.
 
In the face of excessive information, we should consciously gain some knowledge of media, and become familiar with the law of information transmission. We should accept the changes of the way we read in the Information Age, but also need to see through them. It is necessary to know the characteristics of We-Media, choose proper information channels, learn to filter information, and browse through overwhelming messages.
 
The Information Age brings new challenges to us, and to overcome the challenge, we need to gain “constancy”. This kind of “constancy” involves the ability to filter complicated information, with a practical attitude and a sense of balance.
 
Besides reducing the time on WeChat and Weibo and avoiding negative news, spending some time reading a paper book also helps to calm oneself down in an anxious climate. As Professor Lin Yutang said, “The purpose of reading is to make one modest, sophisticated, agreeable, and broad-minded.” Reading allows you to escape from the noisy outside environment and develop perseverance. Whether choosing online reading or paper reading, we need to create a “secret garden”, form a habit of reading and thinking, and regard reading as a lifestyle.
 
Develop a beneficial reading lifestyle
 
I mentioned the idea “reading shapes character” in a recent article. Reading shapes character, develops one’s brain, broadens our horizon, and makes us spiritually extraordinary. It is not only an ability, but also a virtue, and an elegant lifestyle.
 
Reading, thinking, and expressing are interwoven. Reading helps to improve the ability to find problems, analyze, judge and express. A student with a clear mind and innovative ideas often reads more. Reading makes our minds clearer, deeper, and more creative.
 
It is necessary and reasonable to read for exams and job hunting, but we need to set a higher goal of shaping one’s character, and let it lead us to realistic targets.
 
“Reading to shape the character” is actually a wide conception. In respect of philosophy, reading is crucial to the formation of one’s view of life and the world. Our views decide the way we live, determining our ways of thinking and life goals. And the development of our views is even more important than obtaining knowledge.
 
Read classics
 
Let’s focus on the General Education widely practiced in universities. It targets every college student, complements professional education, and aims at cultivating well-educated, competent and reliable citizens through the education of all fields. Rather than using selective courses as an ornament, this educational concept focuses on building a sound character and cultivating students through comprehensive education.
 
The most important part of General Education is guiding students to get in touch with classics. Instead of reading superficial introductions and listening to shallow lectures, it is better to concentrate on reading timeless classics. Introductions may offer basic information, but original classics cannot be replaced. “To learn the taste of pears, we need to taste one by ourselves.” Thinking and feeling is needed when reading classics, and it is the process of understanding that develops our spirit.
 
I advocate that universities reduce “hybrid” selective courses and those seemingly attractive lectures, and offer courses of reading on both Chinese and Western classics. It is not hard to open a course and guide students to read several classics independently per semester. If there are no such courses, students could make a reading list on their own. For example, read 20-30 classics at university. First consider the acknowledged classics, and then biographies and works of great figures. Classics will help people understand the meaning of heroism and sacrifice. Reading 20-30 is not a huge number, and those books would benefit people a lot if they are read thoroughly.
 
We should put classics first. They are the fruits of human intelligence, and have stood the test of time. Reading classics will lay the foundation for spiritual growth. It is not surprising to meet obstacles, including linguistic problems, when reading classics; however, trying to approach and understand classics with respect and appreciation, is also a process of character building.
 
Another problem brought by online reading is shallow culture subverting classics. Students having little access to classics may become easily influenced by online reading materials, some of which interprets classics improperly. Being exposed to relativism and thoughts of regarding life as a game will undermine one’s taste of reading and leave lurking peril.
 
Special attention should be paid to the selection of reading materials. We cannot blindly go with the tide of network literature, but need to read illuminating works consciously.
 
I suggest everyone make a systemic reading plan. The book list should contain three kinds of books. The first is classics. It is a basic which every college student should experience. The next is professional books. Accumulating knowledge of adjacent fields helps to lay a foundation, broaden horizons and think creatively. The last part and the core part is reading in a specific field where you want to develop your career. In addition, recreational reading can be included, but should not occupy the majority.
 
The benefit of reading classics can also be concluded from three aspects. First, it offers an access to knowledge. Take reading Utopia for example. After reading the book, we would gain general understanding of the origin of western culture. Second, it evokes critical thinking. It’s great to ask questions and figure them out by research. Last and most importantly, it builds one’s perception. Through pondering over the meaning of classics, we think about our relationship with the world, and the responsibility we shoulder.
 
There are many ways of reading, and I suggest reading for three times. For the first time, browse the text fast, and get a general idea of the book. The second time, read thoroughly, and get a grasp of its spiritual connotation. The third time, read it with questions in mind and try to find the answers.
 
Of course, everyone has their own reading habit. After reading several classics, we can choose to read further in a certain field considering our own interests. In the Information Age, which is also full of temptations and opportunities, reading classics forms a good reading habit, develops reading taste, builds character and shapes lifestyles. Reading is indispensable in the foundation of life.
 
Speaker: Wen Rumin
Background Information: Professor Wen Rumin, First Grade Professor of Shandong University; Chief Editor of Chinese textbooks of compulsory education; Director of the Institute of Chinese Education, Peking University; former Dean of Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University; and Chairman of Chinese Modern Research Association.
 
Written by: Zhou Yijing
Edited by: Wang Yuqing/Gan Zhonghao