Hyperlexia: “The online-induced inability to stop reading.” (New Republic) Coined from hyper- (over, beyond) and -lexia (words).
Hyperlexia is the term journalist and author Virginia Heffernan uses in her new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, to describe “the plague of our time”:
It’s hyperlexia that keeps people’s eyes fixed on their phones and not on nature, art, friends, mates, children, or work. And it’s hyperlexia that leads to fatalities in driving-while-texting accidents. We have become so compulsively unwilling to stop reading (Facebook, Tinder, WhatsApp) that we will risk our lives, livelihoods, and certainly marriages to keep at it.
That assessment may come as a surprise to “the keepers of the canon of media,” as Heffernan puts it, who “are hesitant to legitimize digital reading and often blind themselves to it.” They may not even recognize the activity as reading. But even amid a deluge of pictographs (emoji) and images (Instagram), we remain constant readers:
As Michael Pollan has memorably chronicled in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, America in the age of rye surplus used to be a nation of drunks, then the overproduction of corn turned us into overeaters. I’d add that, as words have proliferated hypertrophically on the Internet, we’ve become a population of overreaders, of hyperlexics.
Heffernan didn’t coin hyperlexia; she repurposed it from the language of child psychology, where it refers to a child’s precocious ability to read, often combined with difficulties in communication. (It can be understood as the opposite of dyslexia.) According to one researcher, between 5 and 10 percent of children with autism are hyperlexic; according to another, there are three discrete types of childhood hyperlexia, including one type that comprises children who “simply learn to read very early.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos doesn’t like calling his customers “consumers”; he prefers “readers,” writes Heffernan:
As Jeff Bezos has observed, when you “consume” nonperishables like books, newspapers, electronics, and even the copy-dense megasite that is Amazon.com, you’re reading. You’re not eating, not consuming. In fact the signature pastime of the American consumer is now the mental act of processing digital, symbolic data: watching videos, graphics, maps, and images; listening to music and sound cues; and above all reading.
I could quote from Heffernan’s beautifully written, idea-rich book all day, but instead, I’ll just recommend that you add it to your own hyperlexic to-do list.