A Heritage and Future of Reading

Continuously, unnoticeably, at the rate of one second per second, the world turned from what it had been and into what it was to be.

–John Crowley, The Solitudes (Aegypt)

I have a huge store of books on shelves and in boxes in my basement. They are non-fiction of various sorts, literary fiction, a good amount of science fiction and fantasy. They are the various texts that have shaped my life. Some of them I read as a child; some were given to my father when he was a child, and some I inherited from his father. Once in a while I pull out a yellowing old tome and pass it on for my sons to read.

So they encounter Homer, Thurber, Kipling, Asimov, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Tolkein, Borges, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Virginia Woolf, Ursala LeGuin, Staislaw Lem, Connie Willis, Piers Anthony, Susan Cooper, Beowulf. I am passing on my own personal version of my family’s culture, and it takes the form of printed books.

The future of reading

The future of reading

 Texts like these have shaped my family’s vision of the world over generations. Yet in today’s brave new digitized world, those books themselves are no longer simple givens. We are, perhaps, living in the time of a publishing revolution to rival that of Gutenberg, when the rich printed heritage of the old is being thrown up against the gleaming possibilities of the networked new. In such a world, are books and reading as we have come to know them — as we have come to know ourselves through them — doomed to obsolescence? What does it mean for kids these days to be readers?

Two Visions #

To be young is digital heaven! #

Digital publisher Bob Stein at if:book (the Institute for the Future of the Book) imagines authors engaging with readers like professors around their topics. He gives us “an anecdotal report regarding reading in the networked era,” arguing that we should count all of these activities as reading:

A mother in London recently described her ten-year old boy’s reading behavior: “He’ll be reading a (printed) book. He’ll put the book down and go to the book’s website. Then, he’ll check what other readers are writing in the forums, and maybe leave a message himself, then return to the book. He’ll put the book down again and google a query that’s occurred to him.”

Stein’s vision of reading flows from his efforts to understand the use of books beyond their physical form, as conversations situated in a dynamic social network. He argues that the printed & bound form of books obscures the social nature of reading & writing.

The key element running through all these possibilities is the author’s commitment to engage directly with readers. If the print author’s commitment has been to engage with a particular subject matter on behalf of her readers, in the era of the network that shifts to a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a particular subject.

–Bob Stein, “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Neworked Era”

Turn it off — before its too late! #

Meanwhile, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerline, author of The Dumbest Generation, argues in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the physical form of text makes all the difference. Citing data from Jakob Nielsen showing that reading online differs dramatically from the reading of printed matter, both in the actual behavior the screen evokes and in the habits of mind that this behavior reinforces. It is good for some things, but not for others.

Once again, this is not so much about the content students prefer — Facebook, YouTube, etc. — or whether they use the Web for homework or not. It is about the reading styles they employ. They race across the surface, dicing language and ideas into bullets and graphics, seeking what they already want and shunning the rest. They convert history, philosophy, literature, civics, and fine art into information, material to retrieve and pass along.

That’s the drift of screen reading. Yes, it’s a kind of literacy, but it breaks down in the face of a dense argument, a Modernist poem, a long political tract, and other texts that require steady focus and linear attention — in a word, slow reading….

We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning…Digital technology has become an imperial force, and it should meet more antagonists. Educators must keep a portion of the undergraduate experience disconnected, unplugged, and logged off.

–Mark Bauerline, “Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow Reading Counterbalances Web Skimming” in The Chronicle of Higher Education September 19, 2008

Like Robert Gu, poet protagonist of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Bauerline worries that a digital “paraliteracy,” whatever its particular strengths, will cripple and displace the deep and personal engagement with enduring texts that is the hallmark of traditional liberal-arts learning.

In the face of all this excitement, both pro and con, Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library and the forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, argues that digital literacy is not really generational, but based on opportunity and practice, and worthy of an “accurate and subtle” understanding not easily provided by simplistic generational theories:

As a professor, I am in the constant company of 18- to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years…

We should drop our simplistic attachments to generations so we can generate an accurate and subtle account of the needs of young people — and all people, for that matter. A more responsible assessment would divorce itself from a pro- or anti-technology agenda and look at multiple causes for problems we note: state malfeasance or benign neglect of education, rampant consumerism in our culture, moral panics that lead us to scapegoat technology, and, yes, technology itself…Too often we reach for easy, totalizing explanations for cultural phenomena, constructing cartoons of digital youth that have a tone of “gee whiz” or “shame, shame” to describe these new and odd creatures.

“Generational Myth” in The Chronicle of Higher Education September 19, 2008

So what should we do? Should we worry about teaching our children how they should read? Should we hurry to embrace the radical, digital new? Should we fight to prevent the loss of the unplugged, organic old? When the books we have are no longer the books we knew, who will teach us to read?

Writing, too, provokes these questions, and there, perhaps, we can find a clue:

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

As with writing, so with reading. Where we engage, we learn. The page, the page, the eternal text in all its infinite variety, with all its ancient verity, in all its ever-renewing form; the page with its subtle complexity; the page with its shape and smell and texture; the page with its links, connections, and tools; the page we seek and ask for connection, for comfort, for joy, for truth; the page of our parents, the page of our children; the page of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; the page that was, that is, that is to come — that page will teach us to read.

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