Thursday, September 18, 2008

Reading in a 21st Century World

I stumbled across an article from The Independent by John Walsh entitled, "Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?" [1] Walsh explores the ramifications of the interplay between literature and technology, and he includes statements from eight "professionals" in the field.

While I am inclined to agree with many of Walsh's findings, he takes an all-too-biased view of the future of literature. For example, he quotes Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making us Stupid?", pointing out that web surfing has taught us to be "power browsers," meaning that the average surfer will skim over websites, never staying at one site for long enough to "settle in." Instead, we require instant information in order for the site to hold our attention. (This is probably bad news for my little blog... I guess I'll never be Julia Allison after all. *Sigh*)

Walsh also quotes Sven Birkerts' 1994 study, "The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age", which presented, "Brooksmith," a short story by Henry James, to a class of college undergraduates. "Birkerts found that, as watchers of TV and videos, 'they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed "pretentious"; they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and they were put off by an ironic tone, because it flaunted superiority and made them feel they were missing something.'" Essentially, Birkerts found that it wasn't the length of books which turned students off; it was the entire nature of reading anything more advanced than a comic book. (See right--"Don't boo me, webhead"? I mean, really?)
Many of Walsh's professionals in the field, on the other hand, see the changing demand for reading material as merely another step in the evolution of literature. They seem to enthusaistically support the changing technology (as I would, too, if I were the Digital Publisher at Penguin, as one of the experts is). Walsh himself bemoans this impact of technology on literature, but he doesn't acknowledge the fact that technology has much to offer, as well. For example, he bemoans the 21st-century nano-second attention span, writing,
"In the days of the Enlightenment, when few books were published and people read for amusement in their leisure hours, the speed of thought, as expressed in books, could afford to be slow, proceeding from point to point in Augustanly balanced steps. Victorian prose substituted orotundity for harmony: readers would settle in for long evenings letting Barchester Towers or Our Mutual Friend wash over them. This was the period when, say, William Gladstone could tell friends, with every expectation of empathy, that he had stayed up all night to read The Woman in White."
All of this is more true than false, to be sure, but Walsh conveniently forgets that, according to some studies, the literacy rate in 1841 (four years after Queen Victoria took the throne) was around 57.4%. [2] Yes, William Gladstone might have been able to read all night to soak in the minute details of The Woman in White, but a large proportion of the population couldn't read at all, and of those who could read, many worked such long hours that it was only those who were independently wealthy who could wallow in their reading habits, anyway. In addition, books at that time were expensive to make, and only the wealthy or the emerging middle class could afford them in the first place.

Compare that to today. We now have (in America) a 99% literacy rate, and books can be bought inexpensively or even borrowed from the library. Yes, Americans as a whole don't read, and those who do read inevitably read fluff, but is it really appropriate to point to the Victorian period as a model of intellectual perfection? Hardly.
In addition, there are many positives about changing technology. I will not argue that e-Books encourage reading the classics (because I'll admit that I can't force myself to read anything borderline-difficult on a computer screen of any kind), but it does expand access to the classics. Those who want to read will be able to. The problem isn't the technology; it's the readers--or the lack thereof.
I suppose that I'm on the fence as far as this issue goes. I agree that there are not enough readers in America (or the UK, where The Independent is published), but I'm not sure that there's any age that we can point to and say, "See? Everyone read James Joyce back then. Why can't we be more like them?" Instead, we must simply acknowledge that people are lazy. They aren't going to read if they don't feel like it. Our job, if we choose to accept it, is to try to ensure that Americans see the benefit in reading and choose to take the effort.
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