Claw that thing off the reading list! (Interscope Records via Associated Press)
Claw that thing off the reading list! (Interscope Records via Associated Press)

Gradually we are losing all our special skills as a species. I can barely hunt. I could not gather if you told me my life depended on it. 

And now we can’t read, either. Over the portal to the ancient world was written “Know Thyself.” Over the portal to ours will be written “TL; DR.”

We used to think that reading was like jogging or quitting drinking: We could do it at any time if we really wanted to. But it turns out to really be like jogging or quitting drinking: We actually cannot do unless we put our mind to it right now.

Reading apparently is a habit that can be unlearned, like politeness and having an attention span of more than 15 seconds. “Skimming and scanning have altered our brains,” according to the headline of an article that I skimmed and scanned quickly.

Reading is something we have taught ourselves to do, as a species, painstakingly over time. But spend enough time reading tiny pieces of material, and you won’t be able to enjoy Herman Hesse any more, even if you were the sort of person who would have enjoyed Hesse in the first place. Your brain will come to think of words as “those annoying things between the pictures.” Where once you read long works of literature for enjoyment, your brain now thinks it is supposed to be gathering quick bullet points as fast as it possibly can. It is not your brain’s fault, the researchers say. It only wants to please you. It assumes that this is what you are looking for.

We are making it harder for our brains to read books, so that when we do read books we don’t enjoy them so we don’t read as often, so it just gets harder and harder and less and less pleasant until eventually we stop altogether and everyone just agrees to write for television. It is a vicious cycle — AAAH SORRY TOO MANY WORDS I STOPPED PAYING ATTENTION HERE IS A PICTURE:

vicious cycle

 

Since classic books are now such a struggle, here are the TL;DR summaries you have been waiting for.

12. The Jungle: Meat, not cute.

11. The Odyssey: Man is very late getting home; his wife is happy, not annoyed.

10. The Republic: Some bad ideas for your government that are very, very old.

9. The Great GatsbyMan stops at green light, then gets confused and runs someone over. (Honestly, you can read this one faster than you can watch the Baz Luhrmann movie.) 

8. Walden: Guy sits by pond, ponders.

7. Hamlet: The Lion King, with people instead of lions.

6. Lysistrata: Make love, not war. And vice versa.

5. Death of a Salesman: Exactly what it says on the tin.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest: It is important to be named “Ernest.”

3. Ulysses: Guy walks around, ponderously.

2. Finnegan’s Wake: Bunch of letters.

1. Fahrenheit 451: Firemen very inefficiently destroy some kind of item called a “book”?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.