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Reading’s future

I’m staying in a lovely Savannah, Georgia hotel this weekend – here for the Southern Speech Communication Association annual meeting – where the table lamp in my room was constructed by drilling the main support through a stack of books.  As a book addict (one of the few addictions enjoying social approval), the sight caught me off guard, as if the old books having been repurposed from edification to decoration had been speared to death.

The decision just announced by the Borders bookstore chain to downsize their inventory by as much as 15% per store so that books can be increasingly displayed front forward (as opposed to shelving them so that only the spine remains visible) is especially egregious, an saddening concession at the very heart of reading culture to the forces of spectacle.  Yes, I know they have to make money to stay open and times have been getting tougher for the chain.  But the strategy of offering fewer titles to sell more is likely to only further the endangered status of serious and difficult books.  When I complained to a worker at the mega-Borders in Atlanta, knowing it wasn’t her decision but hoping complaints might trickle up the chain, I noted that even if such a change was needed in their smaller shops because of the bottom line, certainly it could be avoided in the better stocked ones frequented by heavy readers.  She was sympathetic but just shrugged and said it came down as a directive from “central.”  They always do.

The question whether the death of the book and of traditional reading practices are to be mourned or simply noticed as another phase in ever-evolving practices of information consumption has been eagerly discussed of late.  Reading scores are, depending on the measure, either stubbornly flat or falling.  After years of evidence that newspaper readership rates are in free fall, and recent attention noting with sadness the decline of the full length book review as a widely disseminated essay form, the attention received by the November 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report was especially noteworthy.  The NEA (“To Read or Not to Read”) argues that declining reading rates subvert citizenship and employability.

I work with colleagues who regularly express with serious conviction and intelligence the merits of all forms of knowledge circulation from novels to philosophical works to middlebrow television hits to podcasts and many others, and my point isn’t to say the sky is falling.  Video games activate cognitive response in important ways, for example.

Ursula LeGuin’s complex reaction to recent reporting on these issues rightly wondered at how sanguine was so often the response to the reading alarm bells; she cited an AP report that asked people about their reading habits and sympathetically commiserated with the Texas guy who shrugged and noted how reading made him sleepy.   But she also expressed the view that the concerns are overrated – “I think…[books] are here to stay.  It’s just that not all those many people ever did read them.  Why should we think everybody ought to now?”  The century of the book, which she identifies as occurring between 1850 to 1950, was a high water mark, an aberration in the context of wider illiteracy and inattention.  The idea that book publishing should produce indefinitely expanding profits is a corporate model that LeGuin says makes no sense, since you can’t induce artificial demand for books in the same way you can rev up candy sales; at some point intelligent readers get bored and stop buying the sequels.

Others are OK with the end of printed texts for reasons that have more to do with celebration of the alternatives, and express concerns more closely connected to the book seen as technology than content.  Matthew Kirschenbaum has argued that reports like those from the NEA shortchange new media options, and to some extent the criticism is certainly well founded since rich data is just coalescing around the topic and so screen-based literacy is still relatively hard to defend in comparison to the hundreds of reports on more traditional modes of reading.  Eager to shift to portable technologies more environmentally friendly than the book (like Kindle), Jeff Bezos has been quoted as disparagingly referring to books as “the last bastion of analog.”

And even those nostalgic for books have sometimes admitted the transition to screen reading is not necessarily bad.  As the editors of the New Republic put it in December (in the context of a broader defense of the book), “the e-book is not the end of civilization.  If readers kindle to the Kindle, splendid:  Any reading is better than no reading.  Nothing valuable was ever preserved solely on Luddite grounds.”  As they put it, “Let us see how many conversions to literacy’s pleasures these gadgets make, and let us be grateful for them; but let us also recognize that we toy with the obsolescence of the book at our mental peril.”

The question relates, of course, to larger questions about the nature of literacy itself.  Modes of comprehension are reflected, to some extent, by the manner in which one consumes information.  When small screens result in bite-sized informational nuggets, does this mean that our broader cognitive capacity to handle more complicated information will be degraded?  To what extent are our critical capacities eroded when we less frequently interrogate texts and increasing, simply, search them?  Do increasing verbal and visual modes of communication (swapped video files, the pervasiveness of TV and iPods) undermine our intelligence?  Is viewing less praiseworthy than reading?  To some extent these are impossible questions, and timeless – debates over the relative merits of orality versus literacy are as old as Plato, and although Adorno was closely connected to the film industry, he still could not resist the comment that he was made to feel stupid by watching movies.

The argument was well summarized by the juxtaposed responses given to a New Yorker essay on the same topic.  In one corner, Maryanne Wolf (a distinguished professor at Tufts):  “My primary concern for the future of reading is that [the brain’s adaptive complexity] will be short-circuited in the next generation of readers, whose formative years may be immersed too early in the digitally driven media.  The addictive immediacy and the overwhelming volume of information available in the ‘Googled world’ of novice readers invite neither time for concentrated analysis and inference nor the motivation for them to think beyond all the information given.  Despite its extraordinary contributions, the digital world may be the greatest threat yet to the endangered reading brain as it has developed over the past five thousand years.”  And in the other, Edwin Battistella, from Southern Oregon University:  “One might argue that, beyond brain chemistry, the ways we engage with old and new media have great similarities.  Understanding a story, joke, film, or cartoon depends on a familiarity with conventions.  This familiarity allows the listener or viewer to be literate in those forms – to analyze, critique, evaluate, and extend them.  It may well be that animation is the next generation’s poetry and films its novels.  But, if that is so, reading will have just changed media, not been lost.”

I do appreciate, by the way, the considerable irony of blogging at such length about this topic.  Perhaps best to close, then, by simply saying:  thanks for reading…

SOURCES:  “The Battle of the Book,” New Republic, 10 December 2007, pgs. 1-2; Ursula LeGuin, “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading,” Harpers, February 2008, pgs. 33-38.


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