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The future of reading / A reading list

I love read­ing, and I've been think­ing a lot about how tech­nol­o­gy is affect­ing the way that we read now and in the future. I keep think­ing about some­thing Sven Birk­erts said in a 1998 inter­view with Harpers: "If you touch all parts of the globe, you can't do that and then turn around and look at your wife in the same way." [PDF] Of course, one could be turn around and look at one's wife in a more informed, more edu­cat­ed way, but that's not the way he sees it. I share this anx­i­ety: I love read­ing the New York Times on my phone, but I can't help but sense that some­thing will be lost if all print­ed mat­ter moves in this direc­tion.

My bookcaseThis is the top shelf on one of our book cas­es. It's com­fort­ing to have the books sit­ting there; they're like a ver­sion of myself, sit­ting on a shelf, dis­as­sem­bled and re-arrange­able.

In August 1995, Harpers Mag­a­zine con­duct­ed a round table dis­cus­sion with Wired's Kevin Kel­ly, author Sven Birk­erts, the Well's John Per­ry Bar­low, and Mark Slou­ka. The results were con­densed in the mag­a­zine [PDF], and the con­ver­sa­tion out­lines the two ide­olo­gies that con­tin­ue to con­verse today: Those who believe that the paper incar­na­tion of the book is an irre­place­able are­na for the deliv­ery of its con­tent, and those who don't. Birk­erts dis­cuss­es the for­mer in his 1995 book, The Guten­berg Ele­gies: The Fate of Read­ing in an Elec­tron­ic Age. In 2004, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts sent a shot across the bow in a paper called "Read­ing at Risk," [PDF]. The researchers sur­veyed 17,000 peo­ple, and they con­clud­ed that the future of lit­er­ary read­ing is bleak: "Lit­er­ary read­ing in Amer­i­ca is not only declin­ing rapid­ly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accel­er­at­ed, espe­cial­ly among the young."Still, the total num­ber of books sold con­tin­ues to rise, so is the future real­ly that bleak? The NEA thinks so. It released a fol­low-on to Read­ing at Risk called "To Read or Not To Read." This study focus­es on young read­ers, and links the decline in read­ing to "civic, social and eco­nom­ic" risks.Last spring, Nicholas Carr dis­cussed Google's effect on lit­er­ary read­ing in the Atlantic, provoca­tive­ly titled "Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid." [I dis­cussed this in a blog post at the Coop­er Jour­nal called "Dumb is the new smart"]. In it, he inter­views a blog­ger who con­fess­es the fol­low­ing:

"I can't read War and Peace anymore,†he admit­ted. "I've lost the abil­i­ty to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four para­graphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."

The arti­cle also sparked a dis­cus­sion on brittanica.com, col­lect­ed in a forum called "Your Brain Online." It's got a lot of inter­est­ing stuff from folks like Kevin Kel­ly, Dan­ny Hillis and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Every­body, who thinks that the "unprece­dent­ed abun­dance" of the web will func­tion to break the vise-grip of the "lit­er­ary world" on cul­ture:

It's not just because of the web — no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so inter­est­ing. This obser­va­tion is no less sac­ri­le­gious for being true. The read­ing pub­lic has increas­ing­ly decid­ed that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actu­al­ly worth the time it takes to read it, but that process start­ed long before the inter­net became main­stream … The threat isn't that peo­ple will stop read­ing War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that peo­ple will stop gen­u­flect­ing to the idea of read­ing War and Peace.

Ursu­la Le Guin dis­putes the notion that peo­ple have ever read War and Peace. (Well, maybe.)

Self-sat­is­fac­tion with the inabil­i­ty to remain con­scious when faced with print­ed mat­ter seems ques­tion­able. But I also want to ques­tion the assump­tion — whether gloomy or faint­ly gloat­ing — that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many peo­ple ever did read them. Why should we think every­body ought to now?

The title of her recent Harper's essay pret­ty well sums up her posi­tion: "Notes on the alleged decline of read­ing." It roars through the var­i­ous aspects of the state of read­ing and pub­lish­ing, quick­ly turn­ing into a ring­ing indict­ment of cor­po­rate pub­lish­ers:

The social qual­i­ty of lit­er­a­ture is still vis­i­ble in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of best­sellers. Pub­lish­ers get away with mak­ing bor­ing, baloney-mill nov­els into best­sellers via mere P.R. because peo­ple need best­sellers. It is not a lit­er­ary need. It is a social need. We want books every­body is read­ing (and nobody fin­ish­es) so we can talk about them.

On that social note

I was just look­ing at my beat-up copy of "The Dhar­ma Bums," and I felt a sort Chris Matthews-esque tin­gle. I bought it dur­ing high school at Rainy Day Books in Fair­way, Kansas, and it sparked my fas­ci­na­tion with the West Coast, years before I ever trav­eled here. Would I ever read it again? Prob­a­bly not. In fact, just now, I could bare­ly read even a cou­ple of pages with­out feel­ing like Ker­ouac was on auto-pilot. But I like the idea that my book­shelf is a kind of exter­nal­iza­tion of myself, a col­lec­tion of impor­tant influ­ences and expres­sions. The future of my books appears to be not so dif­fer­ent than the present: A com­bi­na­tion of tal­is­mans, objects of beau­ty, and points of reference.On the sub­ject of ref­er­ence, in (wait for it) a Harper's essay called ""A Defense of the Book," William Gass talks about the plea­sures of not hav­ing the world at your fin­ger­tips:

I have rarely paged through one of my dic­tio­nar­ies (a decent house­hold will have a dozen) with­out my eye light­ing, along the way, on words more beau­ti­ful than a found fall leaf, on def­i­n­i­tions odd­er than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releas­ing hor­mone or, bare­ly, above it — what? — gombeen — which turns out to be Irish for usury.

And holy crap, there's a whole lot more Gass at Tun­nel­ing. Arti­cles, links, thoughts. I love the Inter­net.

2 replies on “The future of reading / A reading list”

Yes, the plea­sure of read­ing is becom­ing a faint lux­u­ry these days. There­fore it should only fol­low that there will be a resur­gence in this sim­ple plea­sure since if our soci­ety loves any­thing, it loves a res­ur­rec­tion.

I too look through my book­shelf as a chron­i­cle of myself. I love flip­ping through books from col­lege that have the tell-tale under­lin­ings and notes direct­ing me toward points in a term paper. Where was I when I made my the­sis? Was it in a cof­fee house, a dorm room, on the quad? Who was I when I first read this?

I have a fun­ny habit of keep­ing only the books I'd love to read again — any­thing else gets put in the pile to go to Green Apple. As you might imag­ine, this leaves most­ly the clas­sics on the shelf with some room for Alain de Boton and Ian McE­wan. Late­ly I've been acquaint­ing myself with the clas­sics I've nev­er read, such as Som­er­set Maugh­am, Eve­lyn Waugh, and some of the Frenchies like Stend­hal, which I real­ly didn't think was worth-it.

I've always thought of myself as a read­er of nov­els, but I've found that as far as dis­cus­sion goes, most peo­ple haven't read enough of the clas­sics to dis­cuss them. Inter­est­ing con­vos have come up over books like Freako­nom­ics and The Omnivore's Dilem­ma, which I'm still work­ing through. Sad­ly, the greater imag­i­na­tion doesn't com­mon­ly stretch beyond non-fic­tion. I have to say that when this arti­cle came out in the Times last spring I was in vocal agree­ment: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/books/review/Donadio‑t.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

It's sad to end a rela­tion­ship because the oth­er per­son doesn't read, but what can you do? There is, at the very core, some­thing lack­ing in some­one that doesn't read, or who doesn't read well. I don't want to talk to peo­ple who tell me that "Eat Pray Love" changed their life, or who use the premise of "book club" as a cov­er-up for girls' night in with cock­tails. You're either a read­er or you're not. You either have the appetite, the curios­i­ty for new lit­er­a­ture, or you find it a nui­sance. You read because you love it — with that, comes a love of books as objects — not because some­one tells you it's what must be done.

Final thing as I ram­ble on…yes, short blog posts are far more pop­u­lar than long ones. Pic­tures are also help­ful with that — online read­er­ship just likes short dos­es and some­thing to break up the words. It's a sad gen­er­al­iza­tion, but true, and yes I pro­pel it along…

I will put my old-fash­ioned-ness on full dis­play when I say: I don't think that books are the kind of thing that is sub­ject to style. They're like bikes or blue jeans. (Now I'm being total­ly self-ref­er­en­tial), but still: I believe in the notion that — once the paper book itself becomes the old-fash­ioned option — there will be a sort of retro resur­gence in paper books, but I also think that, for some, paper will remain the best option. For instance, I feel like I know more and more peo­ple who are (more or less) dig­i­tal natives, but who grav­i­tate toward vinyl because it sounds bet­ter. NOW, if we can only get peo­ple to start writ­ing let­ters again!