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:
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: