Friday, December 21, 2007

What does it mean to read?

I just read a thought-provoking “Point of View” essay by Matthew Kirschenbaum in the Dec.7, 2007 Chronicle Review insert of the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “How Reading is Being Reimagined,” at page B20. Prof. Kirschenbaum tees off from the new National Endowment for the Arts study “To Read or Not to Read” (see links here and here at OOTJ). He notes that the study finds younger readers reading less and reading less well. Then, Kirschenbaum comments that the study is curiously ahistorical, treating any kind of “voluntary” reading as equivalent.

First, “voluntary” reading is sometimes difficult to clearly distinguish from required reading for school or work. I often read things that I’d be hard-pressed to neatly fit into one or the other category. I read many things for work that I’d also read for pleasure. I often gather information or ideas from leisure reading that colors my work life.

Secondly, society has often laid a different interpretation and value on different kinds of reading. My mother has only recently shaken off the precepts of her childhood that forbade reading novels or any fiction as being frivolous and unworthy. Somehow, it’s easy for many of us to fall into the trap of thinking that reading history or science or politics somehow is more serious or important than reading fiction. I think many people still feel that reading romances, fantasy or science fiction is not serious or important.

And thirdly, people of a certain age in the academy are bewailing the tendency of younger students to read “shallowly.” We value reading with pauses to think about the text, to think deeply and analytically about the text. There seems to be a tendency in the digital generation to bring multi-tasking to reading. They skim, skip and flit among multiple texts. Kirschenbaum reminds the reader that this comparison reading was a normal style not so long ago. He notes the many images of medieval scholars with books spread all over the table. And Thomas Jefferson actually designed a lazy susan device to spin multiple books in and out of the reader’s view. In the periods when scholarship centered on the ability of the scholar to recognize errors and correct them in a handful of classic texts, when hand-copying introduced mistakes or amendations, reading often was about comparing, reading across, not deeply. There is more than one way to read like a scholar!

There is, of course, the time-honored method of skimming a book. The method is explained in Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (handily digested for folks too busy to read it at the NY Times here).

The digitization of literacy changes many things. Kirschenbaum comments on how reading and writing are becoming commingled in surprising ways. For instance, I was just looking at the Nature Alert, a form of table of contents/alert publication. Once upon a time, it was just a list of abstracts to alert the reader of full-length articles in the journal Nature. Now, besides the abstracts with links, one can access videos where authors discuss their research. Once, they had a sound file of a musician experimentally playing a very ancient bone flute. They have podcasts which expand the brief notes, covering a variety of the headlines each week with different stories. The articles include hyperlinks to references, encouraging the inquiring reader to follow multiple paths of related thought. And readers can post comments, and react to the comments of others.

Nature Alert has become a blog, a current awareness journal, links to complete science studies and literature, and multi-media extravaganza, all at once. In the essay, Kirschenbaum cites Zotero, CommentPress, Book Glutton and Alph, as examples of ways that readers are being drawn into chatting, writing and annotating in a Web 2.0 social network. As we slowly learn the ways in which digitization can enhance our reading experience, I think the definition of reading is going to blur more and more. As Kirschenbaum writes,

What are the new metrics of screen literacy? ... based on anecdotal evidence, I suspect that compute users are capable of projecting the same aura of deep concentration and immersion as the stereotypical bookworm. Walk into your favorite coffee shop and watch the people in front of their screens. Rather than the bug-eyed, frenzied jittering, you are more likely to see calm, meditative engagement – and hear the occasional click of fingers on keyboards as the readers write.
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