by John Holbo
“It had been the mental stutter.”
– R.A. Lafferty, Slow Tuesday Night
The waitress read Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments while the customer pondered the lunch menu. The waitress opened her eyes. The customer was taking a second. She closed her eyes and read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Now, she felt, she appreciated the irony.
“When in a written examination young people are given four hours to write the paper, it makes no difference whether the individual finishes ahead of time or uses the whole time. Here, then, the task is one thing and time something else. But when time itself is the task, it is a defect to finish ahead of time. Suppose a person is given the task of entertaining himself for one day and by noon is already finished with the entertainment—then his speed would indeed be of no merit. So it is also when life is the task. To be finished with life before life is finished with one is not to finish the task at all.”
Kierkegaard would have hated 2048. No one who reads his works with understanding doubts it for a second. Of course, never before have so many readers read his works—truly, deeply, and with understanding. Of course, ‘the task’ is a bit different today.
The customer was ready. That leviathan of philosophy slipped into depths behind the waitress’s eyes, subsiding heavily into the vast, brief ocean of her mind.
“I’ll have the grilled pseudosalmon. With a Greek side. And just water.”
While the waitress tapped it in the customer blinked three times, read three by the neo-popular 19th Century ‘sensation’ novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd and Circe. “The cold-blooded assassination of which a coquette is capable.” And, in that first, throwing her first husband down the well! Setting fire to the hotel! Too bad the author had only written eighty-four novels.
“Alright, we’ll have that out in a jiff!”
The analytic breakthrough by Lin, Gurney, Gupta and Tomás, in 2026, concerned what has come to be known as the Broca-Wernicke gyroidal super-synthesis. Reading comprehension in the brain was not theoretically modelled by these researchers, nor has it been since. No, there will always be more mystery than mastery here. (‘Pebbles on the beach,’ Newton says of our knowledge of the universe. Our mind is a universe. We play on its beach.) But certain brain regions were, for the first time, well-mapped enough, their function surmised closely enough, to allow for the interventions that followed. Damage, typically due to stroke, resulting in aphasic incapacity, could be treated by therapy. There was a drug to be taken together with a new digital implant. But it was the unexpected effect of drug, plus implant, on normal, unimpaired individuals that revolutionized the entertainment industry and continues to alter culture and society in ways we scarcely understand today and can even less certainly anticipate for tomorrow.
It became possible to ‘read’ ‘plaintext’ of almost any length, in the blink of an eye, with comprehension. Only ‘naturalplain’—though these texts can be of a semi-technical and quite semantically dense quality. Mathematical and otherwise highly technical notation—complex formulae—have proven less amenable. But as with any pharmaceutical or therapy, the effect is variable across individuals. Some can read and understand Hegel in an instant—but not calculus. For a few it is the opposite. Some will never understand either Hegel or calculus.
Individual variation aside, the impact has been tremendous. Adoption of the new technology was rapid, comparable to that of cell phones for an earlier generation. By 2038, 70% of the US population had received ‘biblimstim’ implants via safe, reversible outpatient brain surgery, often performed at Amazon neighborhood clinics.
The visual image can no longer compete. Video is dead. Videogames seek to evolve into—or devolve back into—text-based games, so far with little success. Pornography is sought in literary longform. Direct import of image files hits bandwidth constraints, plus—more impenetrably—what researchers refer to as ‘the occipital funnel’. Reading comprehension has no such speed limit. Why Johnny Can’t NOT Read, by MIT linguist and cognitive scientist Gary Ng, is a popular, if speculative, evolutionary psychology account, purporting to explain how a latent capacity to read War and Peace in under a second, more than 100,000 years before Tolstoy was born, kept our hominid ancestors alive on the veldt.
Other popular titles compete: The Bible Brain Code; The Potboiler Perplex: Why Great Brains & Great Books Go Great Together; From Brocca’s Region to Area 51: The Written Plot Against Humanity; and the more folksy-contrarian Don’t Read This Book! There are hundreds. Nearly everyone has read absolutely all of them. They’re books.
Whatever the explanation, the fact remains nothing can compete, for aesthetic satisfaction, with the comprehensive thrill and impact of, say, a good old, Victorian triple-decker, in an instant.
It’s no good ‘lectiostimming’, instead, a lot of short works, queued up. The mind registers and approves unity. Barreling through an anthology is tumbling downstairs mentally.
The supply of extant long-form books in suitable styles is, naturally, constrained, relative to consumption at such unprecedented rates. It was at first believed AI’s, trained up on some suitable target corpus, could make up the deficit, meet demand. Neural nets duly hauled in shoals and shoals of thick novels, Victorian novels, Russian novels, Stephen King novels, Barbara Cartland novels, multi-volume Thomistic and German speculative philosophies, history, biography, memoir, travelogue. Less favored in the eyes of the reading public, but viable: ancient poetic epics, popular science, political analysis, so long as it’s long.
It was believed the ordinary reader would soon browse and wander, happily, the AI-generated equivalent of Borges’ library, sampling, not infinite books—not quite!—but as many long reads, in any genre you like, as a human life contains blinks.
But it was not to be. There is something in even the most sophisticated AI-composed book that the normal human brain revolts at. Every AI product reveals its uncanny valley. Astringent, ersatz hint of machine-learning. This is the ‘aspartame effect’. Weeding out ‘homernods’, as these are also known, exceeds machine-learning capacities—nor can humans help. No one can quite put their mental finger on it.
A few readers profess to like that sort of thing—AI-written fiction, that is. Generally, these readers are ‘on the spectrum’. There has been talk of treating the problem, then, from the other end, by mass induction of autism, permanently or reversibly, for a para-posthumanist, post-scarcity reading experience. But for now, the neurotypical mind needs human authors.
In schools, results are good, though the need to ensure students have reading assignments long enough to hold their interest has entailed shifts. Some students are prescribed medicine for ASHD—attention surplus hypoactivity disorder and dysalexia. Basically, the inability to do anything but read books.
In academic philosophy no one doesn’t work on Hegel, resulting in profound shifts in intellectual fashion in a few short years. Most college kids want to major in English literature, with a focus on the 19th Century novel. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, young Americans say, as their great-grandfathers did, “I want to write the next great American novel.”
The effect on social media of the cultural lurch to ‘megalobiliocephalomania’, as it was jokingly dismissed, until it was no joke, has been apocalyptic. Twitter died, proverbial canary in the coalmine of the brain’s reading regions—although there was its odd, fluttering death throe; desperate shift from the old, familiar 240 character maximum to a 240,000 character minimum. The ‘teratweet’ never took off.
Instagram still has a few old family photos. TikTok is old-fashioned as a grandfather clock. Facebook limps along, cajoling its dwindling user-base to contribute to hoped-for multi-author, multivolume fanfic patchworks to be shared and liked. Ad revenue has collapsed. Who spares a glance at any ad less than 500-pages long?
The fear, for a time, was novel sorts of data breach. By law, companies and governments must now store all personal data in brain-unreadable file formats that cannot be mass-machine-transcribed into brain-readable text format. So far, this wall has held. More positively, it has become impossible to conceal things in formerly written-to-be-unread EULAs. Some readers read all the EULAs ever written, in a row, on a dare. The law is a different business today. Everyone understands the law far better than anyone has ever understood it before. Political discourse has grown civilized. The ‘news cycle’ is, at once, too swift, yet too slow, to beguile us. Citizens settle for having highly informed debates about longstanding issues, typically based on exhaustive policy white papers and long books carefully blinked over beforehand by everyone on all sides.
The real economy shrinks every year. Just over 50% of employed adult Americans work main jobs as ‘mid-list author’. “The middle-class is the mid-list in Middle America on Main Street.” Politicians say things like that. But fewer adults are employed. Few say it is a terrible way to go, economically, however.
But some do say it is a bad sign that new novels are always about life before.
For mostly what has changed is life. Just life. What we formerly considered as such was the business between blinks. ‘Between the blinks.’ A phrase, formerly senseless, now semi-derisive. Going to work, kissing the spouse goodbye at the door, a simple meal, shared conversations, watching the children play. All this goes on. But such ‘moments’ cannot but seem a long, slow-flowing dream, between burst of life, when, for the blink of an eye, something is happening—really happening. Something to read.
John Holbo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore, where his favourite course is “Philosophy and Science Fiction”. He was runner-up in the Sci Phi Journal’s APA Philosophy Through Fiction Competition, in 2017, for “Morality Tale”. He is author and illustrator of the webcomic “On Beyond Zarathustra” and is co-author and illustrator, with Belle Waring, of Reason and Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato.
“Read Only” may be thought-experimental commentary on the waitress’ Kierkegaard quote, which urges ‘becoming subjective’ by underscoring the potential absurdity of taking anything but ‘oneself’ as ‘the task’. One might be done too soon. But can that be the concern? And/or the story may be a thought-experiment about what bothers us about ‘experience machines’. We assume the fatally tempting ones will boast the highest resolution video. Then again, in the 1700’s there was moral panic about the epidemic spread of novel-reading. Everything new is old again.