reading between the lines? 01.09.2008, 12:13 PM
posted by matthew kirschenbaum
The NEA claims it wishes to "initiate a serious discussion" over the findings of its latest report, but the public statements from representatives of the Endowment have had a terse or caustic tone, such as in Sunil Iyengar's reply to Nancy Kaplan. Another example is Mark Bauerlein's letter to the editor in response to my December 7, 2007 Chronicle Review piece, "How Reading is Being Reimagined," a letter in which Bauerlein seems unable or unwilling to elevate the discourse beyond branding me a "votary" of screen reading and suggesting that I "do some homework before passing opinions on matters out of [my] depth."
One suspects that, stung by critical responses to the earlier Reading at Risk report (2004), the decision this time around was that the best defense is a good offense. Bauerlein chastises me for not matching data with data, that is for failing to provide any quantitative documentation in support of various observations about screen reading and new media (not able to resist the opportunity for insult, he also suggests such indolence is only to be expected of a digital partisan). Yet data wrangling was not the focus of my piece, and I said as much in print: rather, I wanted to raise questions about the NEA's report in the context of the history of reading, questions which have also been asked by Harvard scholar Leah Price in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review.
If my work is lacking in statistical heavy mettle, the NEA's description of reading proceeds as though the last three decades of scholarship by figures like Elizabeth Eisenstein, Harvey Graff, Anthony Grafton, Lisa Jardin, Bill Sherman, Adrian Johns, Roger Chartier, Peter Stallybrass, Patricia Crain, Lisa Gitelman, and many others simply does not exist. But this body of work has demolished the idea that reading is a stable or historically homogeneous activity, thereby ripping the support out from under the quaint notion that the codex book is the simple, self-consistent artifact it is presented as in the reports, while also documenting the numerous varieties of cultural anxiety that have attended the act of reading and questions over whether we're reading not enough or too much.
It's worth underscoring that the academic response to the NEA's two reports has been largely skeptical. Why is this? After all, in the ivied circles I move in, everyone loves books, cherishes reading, and wants people to read more, in whatever venue or medium. I also know that's true of the people at if:book (and thanks to Ben Vershbow, by the way, for giving me the opportunity to respond here). And yet we bristle at the data as presented by the NEA. Is it because, as academics, eggheads, and other varieties of bookwormish nerds and geeks we're all hopelessly ensorcelled by the pleasures of problematizing and complicating rather than accepting hard evidence at face value? Herein lies the curious anti-intellectualism to which I think at least some of us are reacting, an anti-intellectualism that manifests superficially in the rancorous and dismissive tone that Bauerlein and Iyengar have brought to the very conversation they claim they sought to initiate, but anti-intellectualism which, at its root, is - ?just possibly - ?about a frustration that the professors won't stop indulging their fancy theories and footnotes and ditzy digital rhetoric. (Too much book larnin' going on up at the college? Is that what I'm reading between the lines?)
Or maybe I'm wrong about that last bit. I hope so. Because as I said in my Chronicle Review piece, there's no doubt it's time for a serious conversation about reading. Perhaps we can have a portion of it here on if:book.
University of Maryland
Related: "the NEA's misreading of reading"
Barbara Fister on January 9, 2008 2:14 PM:
Or maybe because it's simply that the NEA hasn't presented very strong evidence that reading is in freefall and that the rhetoric employed is excessively alarmist?
The dismissal of reading by young people that is not entirely in their leisure time is a neat way to pretend kids don't read. Well, of course they do, but it doesn't count. And don't let's take the long view because it's not scary enough.
Another recent report says that over half of Americans have visited a library in the past year and the heaviest users of libraries are those between 18 and 30. Of course many of them are in school and have school-related reasons to use a library. Does that mean their use is coerced and therefore of no value?
I'm not sure, really, why we're supposed to be so afraid about the future of reading, but apparently we are.
jenn on January 9, 2008 3:23 PM:
Maybe I'm closer to the ground on this issue, being a struggling bookseller, rather than part of the intellectual set, that makes me see things a bit more urgently than the folks I read in these literary blogs. There is a serious crisis in reading in our country. The time of dilly-dallying is over. We can see it in everything from the debate on evolution to the publics inability to derive fact from fiction in political debates. The lack of reading is destroying the fabric of our democracy. Right about now most intellectuals are rolling their eyes. "What is she talking about? All of my friends and associates read all the time." Maybe if we looked beyond our respective noses, we would notice that our jobs are going to better educated countries, too.
bowerbird on January 9, 2008 3:33 PM:
if you don't see that a t-test and a pie-chart
are superior to your fourteen-dollar words like
"indolence" and "ensorcelled", there is no hope,
mr. smarty-pants... :+)
seriously, i know enough about statistics to say
_real_ statisticians would _mock_ these posers
up one wall and down the other. perhaps you need
to recruit a few, and put these guys in a vise?
p.s. on the other hand, perhaps we need to
feign agreement with these alarmists, to see
what kind of remedy that they would propose?
twenty bucks says it involves a grant to them.
Barbara Fister on January 9, 2008 6:13 PM:
PS: I just noticed that Mark Bauerlein has just dismissed that library report I linked to because if you go in a college library, the students are using computers - and they can't write for sh*t, either.
So never mind. Libraries are part of the problem.
I will go stand in the corner.
Matt K. on January 10, 2008 5:05 PM:
As someone who spends time each week in the classroom with college undergraduates, I think I'm reasonably close to the ground on this issue. And I have no doubt that my students' level of voluntary reading is generally fairly low. On the other hand, many of them read extensively for courses, something excluded by the NEA's data. More generally, though, while I think my students are reading less, I don't find them any less smart, and the smartest often tend to be--you guessed it--the gamers and geeks. These are kids who are intensively engaged with pop culture, and are capable of producing close readings that would make a New Critic weep--witness the forum discussions over at http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/ for instance. As far as politics goes, online discourse has, in my opinion, likely sharpened the average citizen's engagement.
Of course that's not going to do anything to alter the situation of independent booksellers. But no, I'm not ready to go the sky is falling route; two words that don't appear anywhere in the NEA report: Harry Potter.
Barbara Fister on January 10, 2008 7:10 PM:
I find it something of a corrective that there are thousands and thousands of book discussion groups online and that LibraryThing has 300,000+ members listing their books - and (though it challenges the market for new books) there is a host of opportunities online to buy and sell books (or simply swap them). I know some indie booksellers who have greatly increased their market by listing with Abebooks, though of course it also pits them against a far greater number of competitors.
I just am not persuaded that reading is in such decline. It never was all that popular.
I have no rational explanation, however, for the sorry state of our political life, but I don't think reading has much to do with it.
Leah Price on January 11, 2008 2:53 PM:
Matt and Ben--
These posts have brought much-needed nuance to the NEA's quadrennial one-size-fits-all handwringings about the decline of reading. I'd like to pick up on one question Matt put his finger on: tone. Middlebrow piety (from the NEA) provokes highbrow snark (I plead as guilty to this as anyone). And like so many other middlebrow documents, "To read or not to read" reduces the book to a fetish: paper and glue provoke the same reverence in Iyengar as a gilt frame provokes in a museum-goer, regardless of what happens to be inside it. The medium trumps the message.
Look at the NEA-sponsored The Big Read, which bears more resemblance to a mimeographed workbook (remember those?) than to a functioning website: no links to full text, to audio or to video; well over three-quarters of the pages lacking ANY external links; the only non-textual elements are mug shots of the authors and reproductions of the book covers. Here, at least, the NEA is consistent: reading is such an ineffable and fragile flower, apparently, that it needs to be quarantined from contagion by "work," "school," or even the activity that "To Read or Not to Read" terms "surfing websites."
Here again, I'd agree with Matt that the NEA's ambivalence (reading books = good, reading screens = bad) has a history that long predates the print vs. digital divide: as far back as the nineteenth century, genteel reformers tried to encourage reading (by founding public libraries, for example) but also tried to discourage, discredit, or disqualify certain subsets of that activity (by scissoring the sports pages out of the newspapers kept in those libraries, for example, because research for the purpose of placing bets somehow didn't count as "reading"). Florence Bell's much subtler survey of reading habits in one English town in 1911 concluded that "About a quarter of the men do not read at all: that is to say, if there is anything coming off in the way of sport that they are interested in, they buy a paper to see the result. That hardly comes under the head of reading." Bell's reasoning uncannily prefigures the logic that allows the NEA to count time spent online as a competitor to - rather than a subset of - reading. Damned if you do, damned if you don't: what you read "for work or school" doesn't count (or didn't, at least, in the 2004 report); but if your reading takes place in the context of gaming (now) or gambling (back then), it doesn't count either.
So for me, the issue isn't in what medium people are reading: it's in what mode: continuous, linear absorption? scanning or searching? skimming and skipping? rereading texts or treating them as disposable? These different styles and rhythms of reading sometimes map onto particular media, contexts, or genre, but just as often -- thanks to the creativity of readers -- they don't.
Laura Mandell on January 13, 2008 10:55 AM:
Your article in the _Chronicle_ and Leah Price's article in the NYT Book Review are so important precisely because of questioning what reading is. I'll just remind everyone of the debates in _First Person_ (and narratology / game theory generally) about the different modes of interacting with cultural objects, codicil or digital, and especially Espen Aarseth's opening to _Cybertext._
Here is what I have concluded from them: that, when talking about the lost experience of reading and relying upon the iconography that goes with it -- though Jane Eyre saving herself from tyranny by curling up in the windowseat with a book has displaced all the more anxious eighteenth-century verbal descriptions described by Price -- than upon any actual experience of reading (we all have our version of Jefferson's Lazy Susan, even if it is just a pile of magazines in the bathroom), I wish we could use terminology that is more precise. The Jane Eyre picture is called in your article "immersion" and in Price's "absorption." "Immersion," for game theory requires precisely the Lazy Susan kind of interactivity to move the narrative forward. I think "absorption" is much better, and that we should start theorizing it according to Michael Fried's _Absorption and Theatricality_. Do you think, Matt?
Anyway, great article and response. Best, Laura
Sunil Iyengar on January 14, 2008 11:21 AM:
I am unaware of any caustic note in my explanation of the NEA study, and I encourage readers of this blog to decide for themselves. I respect Matthew Kirschenbaum's scholarship and value his contribution to what we hope will become a national discourse.
Matt K. on January 14, 2008 1:43 PM:
Laura, there's also Charles Bernstein's _Artifice of Absorption_, which I've always liked. You're probably right about the terminology--and it's revealing that when we talk about getting "lost" in a book that's a description of a positive experience, rather than one which provokes frustration and anxiety.
I appreciate Sunil Iyengar's willingness to enter into the debate here, and like him hope the discussion continues in various formats and venues.
Leah Price on January 16, 2008 9:18 AM:
"Lost in a book" is a positive term, yes, but also an ascetic one -- about being freed from one's body (and, concomittantly, from the materiality of the book), doubly abstracted into some purely mental space. The metaphor in which books "absorb" their readers always seems to me to understate the extent to which books repel (the way a newspaper does on the subway when you use it to ward off the eyes of your fellow-commuters): in the scene Laura mentions, for example, it's clear that Jane Eyre ISN'T reading, and that what matter is the manual gesture of HOLDING the book, not the mental action of READING it. The book functions there as a literal shield rather than a metaphorical window.
Garrett Stewart extends the Fried and Bernstein arguments in interesting ways in his new book _The Look of Reading_, which deals with the representation of books in painting. His argument corroborates Matt's and Laura's point that the EXPERIENCE of using digital media is being compared with an idealized IMAGE of book-reading -- i.e., ideal apples vs. real oranges.