Listless Listicles: We Are What We Read
I’m tired of “listicles.”
Not that I don’t love me a good Buzzfeed article now and again, but the time has come to chat about the costs that kind of reading requires us to pay.
Yes, I understand that, in a world of bullet pointing and efficiency, it would seem antithetical for any article to have any more than a “just the facts” approach. We need to be told how exactly how much information is left in our reading because we are constantly on the go. We need to be told exactly what to expect in a casually arbitrary writing style. We need to be able to skim past pointless information so we can focus on the piece of information in front of us.
It’s become endemic to our thinking. Setting aside the circular logic that seems to bloom uncontested in today’s journalistic landscape, we have dumbed down our public discourse until we literally have listicles about creating other listicles. Every day my newsfeed suggests articles full of more numbers than a Sudoku book, and every piece of literature swears up and down that it has the answers that I need.
But we’re busy! I hear you cry. We don’t have time to sit on our haunches and dive into some encyclopedic article! Life moves too quickly!
I hear you. I do. Adulting is a full time job and I won’t pretend that there aren’t days that I am just burnt out and fried and all I want to do is turn off my brain and just read something that doesn’t need scholarly analysis to appreciate.
But is the right solution to turn to a listicle?
The Benefits of Reading…
Dozens of papers, journals, and books by people far more intelligent than I note the varied benefits of developing lifelong reading habits. Reading slows degenerative mental diseases claims one article. Another states the empathetic benefits of opening our eyes to underrepresented cultures and ideas. A third just focuses on the old fashioned benefit of learning new “stuff.”
Whether it’s absorbed by sound or sight, reading remains a central activity of our everyday life.
It would seem to make sense, then, that listicles would be a boon to current society. Not only would they allow individuals to be connected to a magnitude of different ideas, but media consumers might also be encouraged to eat their mental “vegetables” without being forced to do so.
So why does it matter how that media is consumed?
Well, we’ll get to that in a second.
But surely at the end of the day, the important thing is that we are reading something, right?
The answer to this second question is a resounding “no.”
…and the Costs of Dumbing it Down
I spend a lot of time working with students looking to prepare them for standardized tests, a task which sees them focus on reading comprehension, data retention, and then interacting with questions on that material.
Though I would hardly suggest that listicles will be appearing on the SAT any time soon, there is a linkage between the two worth commenting on.
Both encourage speed reading as a means by which a lot of material can be experienced at the phantom notion of preserving time.
I know there are many advocates who would say that speed reading has its place in our society, but it isn’t a means by which we absorb and retain new information. Despite what shows like Criminal Minds might have you believe, speed reading is not a euphemism for intelligence, nor is it the best way for us to interact with different ideas and perspectives.
Regrettably, it is just this style of reading listicles encourage. And because of that encouragement, listicles result in an inescapable consequence.
They make consumers apathetic.
Instead of encouraging readers to take their time to slow down and “deep read” (that is, engaging with the content), listicles encourage skimming. Instead of engaging with the reader by offering up a new or interesting perspective, listicles repeat the same suggestions.
That skimming has a cost. By boiling down an argument or a culture or an event to its barest bones, readers lose nuance. In that loss of nuance, we lose the empathetic benefits of reading. We lose the opportunity to truly assimilate and take in new knowledge.
In short, reading listicles with any consistency is almost as bad as not reading at all.
A Literary Food Pyramid
Let me not be understood to say that the occasional listicle is a bad thing: as I said above, there are days where I don’t care about what kind of literature I’m consuming as I try to relax after a long day. I’m not immune to reading a funny list of observations or skimming to get the gist of a topic.
That kind of reading is a release, a reward granted for all the effort we put forth in or day to day lives.
But there is and should be a limit to the amount of such material we should, as individuals and as a society, consume. Like a food pyramid, listicles should the fats that we read sparingly, not the foundation on which we build our media consumption.
Our minds deserve better.
At the end of the day, we are what we read.