Chapter

About Reading

I love books and reading. So why do I have this hate on for reading and writing? I don’t. For the most part.

Reading and writing are good,
they are just not good enough.

First let’s revel in the joy of reading because it is profound. No book does this for me better than Alberto Manguel’s The History of Reading (1996). Because reading is a mysterious mixture of writer and reader where what is read is made meaningful in the context of other texts, memories, and experiences, Manguel refers to it as “a bewildering, labyrinthine, common and yet personal process of reconstruction.”

Overflowing with scholarship and branching out into a wide variety of disciplines, Manguel’s book is infused with his passion for reading. It is this deeply personal aspect that makes this work so powerful. He describes his childhood experience of learning to read:

“It was like acquiring an entirely new sense, so that now certain things no longer consisted merely of what my eyes could see, my ears could hear, my tongue could taste, my nose could smell, my fingers could feel, but of what my whole body could decipher, translate, give voice to, read.”

This “new sense” captures the deep connection we have with reading. The technology of reading (e.g. the alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, page, book) becomes invisible or transparent. The act is deeply internalized not as a new capacity but as a natural extension of our being. A new sense. A part of us.

While it is conventional to think of reading as a personal capacity, it is widely observed that reading is a social process. We read and engage with a community of other readers. The stories and ideas make connections that bridge across time and space. Readers of the same books have a bond that is informal but strong.

Manguel suggests a different aspect to this: “reading is at the beginning of the social contract”. It is not merely a social activity but a key (initial) piece of the social agreements we choose to live by.

But has reading changed because of digital technologies? Has the social contract been altered?

In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994) Sven Birkerts makes the classic argument against the evolution of reading into a digital environment. While Birkerts admits he is looking at the “dark side,” his insights into the effects of digital reading are profound. For him “the ‘feel’ of the literacy engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently.”  “Meaning differently” is the key for Birkerts because it signals that the conventions of reading have changed and with it the value of reading:

“The price of retooling for the electronic millennium is a sacrifice of the incompatible aptitudes required for reading and meditative introspection.”

Those sacrifices fundamentally compromise self-awareness. Birkerts calls this ability to reflect, consider, pause and control “deep time” and as a result, “no deep time, no resonance; no resonance, no wisdom.”

A Comment from Camille Johnson:
Reading/Writing in a Digital Age

We know that books are changing because of digital environments. And for the most part this has been positive. The seemingly endless whinging about the death of the book has diminished largely because people are eagerly buying (or borrowing) e-books. Amazon sells more e-books than print and e-book readers are everywhere.

However, George Sipos (“Think Person, Not Device“) reminds us that “it’s not the future of the book but the future of the reader that should concern us.” The “new sense” Manguel describes is the essence of reading. It is where reading becomes indistinguishable from the reader.

Leah Price, Professor of English at Harvard, was interviewed for The Browser’s FiveBooks series about the history of reading. She wants to know what people thought of what they read. “People who write leave evidence. People who read don’t.”

Are digital texts and digital reading leading us into a new, and less profound, notion of the reader? Birkerts is quite blunt about this: “to me the wager is intuitively clear: we gain access and efficiency at the expense of subjective self-awareness.” For Birkerts, and many others, digital reading is something completely different, and it is a gamble (“wager”) with our intellectual future.

Reading in the future might simply be a fetish. Think, for example, of Captain Jean-Luc Pickard (Star Trek) reading Shakespeare in his quarters when he has a holodeck at his disposal to experience any of the plays in their full glory. Another possibility is that reading will evolve into something new, and different, and equally profound; a kind of hyper-reading.

A Comment from Amber Fundytus:
Fetishizing Literacy

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King reflects on what happens when he writes a description of a table with a red cloth, cage, rabbit, and blue number eight:

“I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You saw them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”

Reading is telepathy.

A Comment from Jennifer Lee:
Reading and Telepathy: A Skeptic’s Response to Stephen King

Reading is also subversive. This a characteristic wonderfully captured by Beto Gomez in his delightful video Reading Kills.

Just as writing is not the mere “transcription” of speech, so too is reading not just the decoding of symbols (e.g. the alphabet). It is this deeper quality that makes reading profound; it is also the reason why the future of reading (literacy) can be profoundly different and still enable Birkerts’ “deep time.”

Reading and writing are good, they are just not good enough.

Comments from Various Students:
Students Reflect

18 Comments ↓

18 Responses to “About Reading”

  1. John Miedema October 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is among our earliest surviving works of literature. Gilgamesh is a tyrant king who discovers a wild man, Enkidu, outside the city walls. Gilgamesh brings him into the city, and they become brothers, together more powerful and wonderful than before. It is a story of the discovery of “other”. Manguel talks about it in City of Words. It is coincidence that our earliest written works are about otherness?

    Literacy may have invented self-awareness. Jaynes argued that the brain’s bicameral nature broke down around 1500 years ago along with the invention of the alphabet. Self-awareness is directly linked to literacy.

    You are likely already forming the response, “yes, literacy is good, just not good enough.” Nothing in this chapter persuades me that post-literacy will not be the sunset of awareness of self and other. You could try arguing that awareness of self and other is not good enough …

    • Jeff Penfold October 27, 2012 at 10:48 am #

      This is an interesting idea. In chapter 9 we discuss some possible technological advances that might result in post-literacy. Among these are some sort of collective unconscious or hive mind. When we discussed this in class one of the concerns many of us had was the breakdown of the self, what that would mean and would we want this. I don’t think any of us considered that it might have been literacy that created the self in the first place. Thanks for the contribution to the debate.

    • david thurman November 19, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

      so too is reading not just the decoding of symbols (e.g. the alphabet). It is this deeper quality that makes reading profound

      It’s not just software, hardware, and combined it creates a screen and an observer sitting in their heads watching their own private movie in a void? you mean the aleph bet isn’t the first computer programing language, and the torah isn’t just an dead IPAD of God so to speak? it’s MORE Than that?

      LOL I thought this was a beyond literacy site…My mistake.

  2. Sarah Roberts October 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    I have no trouble with the idea that reading and writing are not good enough, but isn’t that why we don’t ONLY communicate through written language? Verbal language, visual art, dance, and music: these are all literacies that help capture what the written word cannot. Even so, written language remains incredibly useful, what’s the need to move beyond it altogether?

    • Jennifer Lee November 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

      So, I keep asking myself why reading and writing aren’t good enough. Good enough for what?

      I mean, if reading and writing are tools to enable absolutely perfect communication between writer and reader without any misunderstanding, then, yes, reading and writing are ineffective. But, I think that’s boring. Isn’t deconstruction, interpretation, evaluation what make communication fun?

      And if reading are writing are shorthands for capturing and exchanging ideas, then yeah…they’re pretty good…and given my paritality for ambiguity…good enough (for me!).

      I think my dilemma is related to Statistics Canada’s findings that as a nation, we have pretty low literacy rates. According to Statistics Canada: “In 2003, 52% of Canadians aged 16 years of age and over had literacy scores in the Level 3 category or above. Level 3 is generally considered to be the minimum level of literacy required to function well at work and in daily living. This means that nearly half of Canadians had low levels of literacy.” (http://www4.hrsdc.gc.ca/.3ndic.1t.4r@-eng.jsp?iid=31).

      Shocking.

      But it does highlight Sarah’s point that we don’t only rely on reading and writing to communicate.

      And, it gets me thinking. If 48% of Canadians can, without being able to read and write at a high level, presumably (and yes, this is a HUGE assumption), maintain satisfying relationships and have a fulfilling life, then doesn’t that mean reading and writing are good enough? Or…does it mean that we’re well on our way to a post-literate society already?

  3. Kate S October 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    As an extension of Sarah’s question–what is the need to move beyond written language?–I wonder, Why now? The death of traditional literacy could have been proclaimed years ago. Why is the notion that post-literacy may replace/displace reading and writing actually plausible to us today (or, at least worthy of our serious consideration)?

    • Camille November 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

      I don’t believe the author means this move will be now – it will take time, like all major change there is a (usually lengthy) transitional period. Why should we focus on this possibility now? Because it is an exciting discussion! The death of traditional literacy is already in the process of dying – as Mike points out in this chapter, e-book sales have been greater than regular print book sales on Amazon. Whether or not we need to displace reading and writing is not the question – in my opinion I don’t believe we need to – but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Humans like to be innovative, whether or not there is a need.

  4. Kate S November 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    You’re right–it is an exciting topic.
    I guess I’m curious about the conditions that make this fringe idea tenable to other readers/participants. Has traditional literacy reached an impasse in popular imagination, making a post-literate future seem probable? I’m still trying to wrap my head around it as a viable possibility–I can’t contemplate a post-literate reality without imagining an entirely new value system.

    • Camille November 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      You bring up an important point, Kate. A post-literate society very well could shake up our existing value system. Whether it’s a positive impact or a negative impact really depends on how we use (or abuse) the new innovation(s). I like that library and literacy professionals, enthusiasts, and students are discussing this – I feel like what is important and valuable would somehow be maintained in this post-literate future. We do not want to profit from this potential situation for cynical purposes.

  5. maryakem November 10, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    I always smirk when some mis-uses. Ereader. I think an ereader is all fleshy.

  6. kanta Kapoor November 12, 2012 at 12:25 am #

    Post literate era…. So, who would need libraries? Libraries are considered brand for books. But if books are not there, what is likely to be there in libraries. Libraries need to rebrand their services and collection. Librarians would have to perform the roles of mentor, guiding the users not only to the relevant sources, but also in troubleshooting downloading content, making info graphs, guiding them in the effective use of social media, etc. Google products may be used for branding or marketing of library services. We can imagine a library with lots of high tech devices, librarian moving around with portable devices performing the role of troubleshooter. Libraries are expensive to operate. As books increasingly go digital, it makes sense for libraries to shift the focus of operations from books to people.

    • Peter November 12, 2012 at 7:44 am #

      If there are no physical books why do we need buildings called libraries? I don’t think changing the library role to provide new services will help either. It would just transform the library into something that is not a library for instance a help centre or if there was coffee a Starbucks. The only way forward for librarians in a post literate world is to go virtual, to curate the vast and growing knowledge corpus called the internet

    • Michael Ridley November 12, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      When speaking about post-literacy (often to librarians), I’m frequently asked about whether this is the end of libraries and librarianship. I don’t think it is but it will likely mean an interesting and provocative resetting of the role. This is my take on it: http://www.beyondliteracy.com/end-of-libraries-and-librarianship/

  7. etresoft November 12, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    I had to read “The Gutenberg Elegies” for a class once. What a chore! Birkerts is stuck in his own narrow little world of yesterday. Doesn’t he know that his precious books are just cheap, machine-made, maybe-recycled wood-pulp products? The whole idea of communication through light reflected off of hundreds of sheets covered with pigment in a specific spatial pattern is pretty ridiculous when you think about it. There has got to be a better way. And, indeed, there is.

    Libraries are a great example. The image we have of the librarian is a stodgy woman with her hair in a bun who spends all day around books and scowls at children. In truth, of all our cultural institutions, the library is one of the least stodgy and most forward-thinking. Libraries are embracing new media and new ways of knowledge better than anyone else – certainly better than Birkerts.

    The library pre-dated the book and will survive it.

  8. Kate S November 14, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    “The act [of reading] is deeply internalized not as a new capacity but as a natural extension of our being. A new sense. A part of us.”

    What happens when I read? Well, reading does curious and important work in my person. (Eloquent, I know.)

    In an effort to defend literacy, I keep stumbling over ways to describe the experience, the process, the phenomenology of reading. The book is no longer an object. The sense of separateness between myself and the non-object blurs. “I” am lost as letters become images, become feelings, become thoughts. I travel somewhere absolutely private, obscured, interior.

    I read the following excerpt in a book (I can’t remember whose–sorry) and then tracked down the original from Helen Keller’s _The Story of My Life_ (http://www.afb.org/mylife/book.asp?ch=P1Ch4#ft1):

    “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

    Keller “speaks” to the profound and mysterious experience of reading. She makes interesting connections between reading and the soul, reading and consciousness, reading and memory… there is so much going on here!

    So, about our post-literate future… I’m not assuming that the experience of reading is universal, but I do wonder what other acts or processes can–or already do–replicate the experience of reading. What can displace an act that “awaken[s] the soul”? Will our post-literate successors be done with such notions?

    • Peter November 15, 2012 at 8:05 am #

      Thank you Kate that was compelling and poetic argument for the power of the written word. I wonder if you had spoken them to me whether I would have felt them more or less strongly. Or sang them. Aboriginal Australian believe that they sing the world into existence as they did their walkabouts. Could the post literate world be one where we sing the world into existence through our voices, our mathematics(?) our machines?

  9. Doug Wilton November 27, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Language is better than magic.
    Writing takes that ubermagic one step further
    and will never be surpassed.

    Wade out of the bullshit, sit down
    and write something real.

  10. Abby September 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I can understand what he mean s by “the dark side of things” but I disagree with it. Perhaps I am an optimist when it comes to reading and writing’s future in the evolving digital age, but I prefer to think of myself as realistic. For the coming generations, reading digital copies of books and typing instead of writing may become the foundation of this “new sense” but I don’t think this will eliminate the meditation and deep thought of those words. They are still words with meanings deep and important. There are people today who read a paper book, words that aren’t disrupted or blinding from the glow on the screen, and still they don’t go much further than the surface of the story. Our capabilities to understand what is written before has nothing to do with the format that it is in, especially of it is the new normal format as digital is soon becoming.

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