The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.


Book Glutton: Two Thumbs Sideways

Ok, I’m finally getting back to talk about Book Glutton, and I’m probably not being fair to them since I actually finished Treasure Island more than three weeks ago. I’ve probably been delaying because it’s always easier to review or talk about something that you love or hate. Easier to get exercised and visceral when you want to damn things to perdition, or when you think we’ve arrived at A-MOMENT-OF-WORLD-HISTORICAL-REVOLUTION. Perhaps unfortunately for Book Glutton, it strikes me as neither world-historical or revolutionary. It is–in that damnably tepid turn of phrase–“OK.” Or as I sometimes say on my student’s papers: “Not Too Bad.” No wonder they hate me.

First what is Book Glutton? On the one hand it is just another of many online sites where one can get full-text versions of literary classics and not-so-classics, though they also promise to be a publishing venture for contemporary writers. The books are loaded into a reader in your computer browser. The reader is the approximate size of a typical paperback, and through several nifty features the reader gives human readers a lot of options that aren’t available either through other e-book services and readers or via traditional board and paper books. For one thing, I can join an online club reading the book I choose, and we can leave each other notes filled with our readerly wisdom. We can also communicate in real time via a chat window attached right to the reader window itself. Thus I can talk and read at the same time, something my children and my students seem to find unexceptional but which I still find somewhat like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.

I’ve been on record as having my doubts about e-books, so let me go on record first with what I liked or found interesting about the whole experience. The first thing to say is that reading the book itself was, well, surprising like reading anything else, at least insofar as the story itself was concerned. I liked the yellowish-white cast of reader’s pages since it looked a little bit like a slowly aging paperback, and it reduced eyestrain to boot. I also liked the page-like feel of the presentation itself. One problem with many online texts is something we might otherwise think would make them convenient, the scrolling itself. I’m not alone in finding the long lines and the unending page of text in a lot of online e-texts completely maddening. There is something comforting and rhythmic about completing 30-40 medium size lines of text and turning a page, the sense of completion somehow necessary to the process of going on. A little bit like  breathing in a swimming stroke.

Book Glutton accomplishes this in much the same way as dedicated ebook readers, recreating the approximate page size of a normal books such that I can attend to the text, complete it and move on. And for the most part, the story was still the story that I could read and absorb and be absorbed by just as I might any other novel. As I suggested in my last post on Treasure Island, I found the book great fun. As an academic, I found it thought provoking in ways no one else would probably care to find thought provoking. In other words, its being an e-book by itself didn’t do too much to alter my reading experience as such.

I think I would go so far as to say that there are a couple of features of Book Glutton’s presentation that I even liked better than traditional books. The scroll bar at the bottom of the page told me how much further I had to go in a particular chapter. Thus the reader has both the best features of a traditional book–page length chunks of prose–while also overcoming one of the few annoying features of traditional books. When I get bored with a book I’m reading, I’m given to flipping through pages to see just how many pages I have to the end of the chapter. It can be vaguely exasperating to flip and not find what I’m looking for, whereas Book Glutton let’s me know exactly how far I have to go, and I can determine whether it’s worth my time to just plow on through or give up for the day until I can get more interested.

I also have to say I liked the fact that at the click of a button I could enlarge the text so that my aging eyes could read just a little more easily.  The text automatically reorients while still retaining page length chunks of prose, just less prose per page.

Some features of Book Glutton hold a lot of promise, but didn’t work too well for me. I created a book club, but no one came. I invited the entire faculty of my college to join me. I think three people said they would, but I don’t think anyone actually read it. I had three anonymous online folks say they wanted to be part of the group, and I signed them up, but they were never on when I was reading, and I couldn’t find that they left me any nifty notes with pearls of wisdom.

Clearly Book Glutton requires a more hands on and somewhat fascist book group leader than I am. Someone who demand more participation. Maybe someone who would get everyone on board to be reading at the same time. Theoretically I can see an interesting place for this kind of thing. Studies show that people who read with groups or who at least are around other people who read are more likely to keep reading through their adult lives. This, in general, is a great service the web provides, connecting readers from around the world. Book Glutton is another take on this general principle, enabling real time participation in common reading. I could see this kind of thing as being really useful for secondary and even college classrooms, and especially for the task of getting kids interested in reading. In this age driven by buzz, it’s not the thing itself that is inherently cool, it’s the fact that everyone around you is in to it. So Book Glutton or similar services could be a route toward making books “the bomb” so to speak. But it just didn’t work out for me.

There were some negatives. I found lugging my computer around, booting it up, connecting to Book Glutton all just a little bit tiresome and inefficient. Why can’t I just open my books and start reading, I wondered. I also had the problem of connecting. I brought my laptop several places and tried to get connections while I was waiting around for something else to happen–a common time to spend reading. Problem is that Wifi isn’t everywhere, no matter what the TV commercials tell me.

The heating pad effect of my laptop lying on my capacious belly was also a bit unnerving. I’m not used to getting belly sweat from a novel.

As I suggested above, most of the reading experiences themselves were not terribly different from a regular novel, but I did find the lure of the internet a bit astonishing even for an incipient codger such as myself. In the normal course of reading a section of a book that started to bore me, I’d skim through until my interest picked up again. With BookGlutton, however, the ready availability of email or other texts was all but irresistable. Rather than skimming through the book, a way of sticking with it, I would abandon the book and go read my email for a half hour. At the end of which I couldn’t quite pick up the thread of the reading again.

Similarly, the chat mechanism is promising, but I also found it insidiously distracting.  I actually had a conversation online with one of the poohbah’s an BookGlutton.  A really nice and helpful guy who was very receptive to some of my suggestions.  Sorry, I can’t remember his name.  It was the only chat time I got during the whole experience, and I found after thirty seconds or so that i was more interested in chatting than in reading.  This is, of course, a common feature of book groups.  They don’t actually talk about books, if they even read them.  However, it is a peculiar thing to have this happening while you’re reading.  It’s almost as if you’re in a library but people you don’t know come up and start talking to you about the book you’re reading.  Many of the people who do this in library, of course, are either homeless or otherwise imbalanced, so what does this say about denizens of Book Glutton.  No, just kidding.  However, I did actually end up disciplining myself to not open the chat feature while I read a chapter, only opening it at the end of chapters.  The temptation to keep seeing if anyone else was around was compelling, a feature of the internet that interferes with the kind of absorption typically associated with literary reading.

This distraction is an important consequence of reading online I think, something that digital utopians champion as a “new literacy.”


I tend to think that describing the frantic skimming that goes with reading on the web as “new literacy” is a little bit like me saying my belly fat is a form of stored energy. It is, but does that really tell me anything or make me feel any better. No, but it does give me a convenient reason for not working out. Call it conservation.

In a similar fashion I think all the discussion of new literacy is a somewhat fancy name for the inability to attend.

Still, overall this is not too many negatives associated with BookGlutton. So why only two thumbs sideways?

I guess I feel like e-books need to demonstrate a clear superiority to board and paper books, a reason that this technology is clearly superior to the technology I already have in hand. At this stage they don’t present themselves to me as such. While there’s some nifty things associated with Book Glutton, I’m not sure most committed readers are really interested in being nifty persons. Book Glutton is kind of neat, but not neat enough to make me spend my time on Book Glutton instead of in a book store.

It’s a little like a decent three star summer movie. Kind of glad I went to see it, and might go see another one, but I don’t feel like my life will miss much if I had missed it.

Or even more, it’s almost as if we’ve got a good television show that a movie theater decides to show on a big screen. It might be kind of neat to watch “Lost” on the big screen, but at some point will you really start watching all your television shows down at the theater. I kind of doubt it.

This ‘n That

I’m working on a little longer piece on Emerson, again, but thought I’d just put up a collection of unrelated stuff in the interim.


Me On Teleread

I actually don’t remember if I said anything about this, but I should have if I didn’t. Dave Rothman over at was kind enough to ask me to blog on his space. David says he wants the perspective of a humanist to complement all the techies. He was kind enough to not say “I want someone who doesn’t know jack about technology.” In any case, my first post over there went up last week. I may have forgotten it because I posted a version of it over here as well. Still, I’m very interested in the conjunction of technology and reading, so teleread is a good place for me to further that thinking.

On Being Healthy

The Canadian Council on Learning tells us that daily reading is better for you than fiber. Oh, wait…I think we just found out that fiber doesn’t do anything for you except forestall diarrhea. (For more on diarrhea, see my completely fascinating post on this topic.) In any case, I’m happy to discover the following.

Reading each day can keep the doctor away, says a report that concludes sifting through books, newspapers and the Internet — on any topic — is the best way to boost “health literacy” skills such as deciphering pill bottles and understanding medical diagnosis.

Daily reading, not education levels, has the “single strongest effect” on the ability to acquire and process health information, the Canadian Council on Learning said Wednesday.


The learning council reported Canadians aged 16 to 65, who said they read daily, scored up to 38 per cent higher than the average on the health literacy analysis.

Daily readers over 65 years old scored as much as 52 per cent higher than the average for their age.

“Although it may not be a panacea, this report makes a compelling case that reading each day helps keep the doctor away,” said the report.

I think it’s wise to have a tad bit of skepticism about stats like this. I wonder if there are correlations between regular reading and social class, for instance, and if so is the relationship to health a function of reading or a more general issue of access to health care, material resources, and knowledge itself. Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth. At this rate I am going to live a good long time. Actually, I better stop blogging because it’s definitely cutting in to my reading time. (Who am I kidding, I just don’t watch TV anymore.)

Reading More or Reading Better

A blog over at Metafilter raises the typical objections to the notion that we’re in a reading crisis. So what if we’re reading less literature; we’re reading more than ever on the web, right?! On the other hand, they also point out that Americans ability to read at all seems to be declining, pointing to the following study at the National Center for Education Statistics:

On average, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average (the mean of the 30 OECD countries) on the combined science literacy scale (489 vs. 500).

The average score for U.S. students was:

  • higher than the average score in 22 education systems (5 OECD countries and 17 non-OECD education systems)
  • lower than the average score in 22 education systems (16 OECD countries and 6 non-OECD education systems)
  • not significantly different from the score in 12 education systems (8 OECD countries and 4 non-OECD education systems)

Ummm….One big problem, guys. Science and Math literacy is not the same thing as reading and writing literacy. And so I’m not quite sure what this has to do with whether people are reading literature any more or not. Though I’m sure Dana Gioia over at the NEA would be glad to claim that reading Moby Dick helps people with their algebra. Of course, it could be that reading skills have declined so far that the folks can’t even tell what science and math literacy really is.


A number of people have been kind enough to comment about the blog or link to my blog in various ways over the past several weeks. A few of them:

Free listens: A blog of reviews about audiobooks. What a great thing. I’ve said that I wish there were more sorting and evaluating of some of the free stuff on the web. Heresy of heresies, I don’t think massing blog stats necessarily tells me much about quality. I mean, videos of Brittany Spears’ pudenda are among the most popular on the web. Does that really tell us anything…about the quality of the video, I mean. Not about the state of America… or the state of Brittany Spears body parts. I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audiobooks to see if I agree with the judgments, but I’m glad someone is taking up the flag to do such a thing.

The Reading Experience: Daniel Green has me on his blogroll, and I’ve had The Reading Experience on mine from the beginning. I think Daniel is a little narrower in his literary judgments and tastes than am I, but I admire anyone immensely who has left academe and made it on his own. His blog is always thoughtful and often provocative.

There’s Just No Telling: “Monda” has commented on my blog before, and has a lovely sight devoted to reading and writing. From what I gather she is a teacher of creative writing, who all deserve to be sainted.

Brad’s Reader: Brad lists me as an interesting read. And I didn’t even have to pay him.

There are others that I’ve missed, and I’ve got to stop somewhere in any case. So if you’ve linked to me and I’ve missed you, let me know. I’ll keep you in mind next time I do this.

Reading, Listening, and Form: Or, where is literature?

Hugh Mcguire from over at Librivox (and also at left some very good comments on a couple of my recent posts, and also posted them to an online forum over at Librivox. They’re well worth reading in their own right, as are the comments on the forum. You can see Hugh’s comments here and here, and also access the librivox forum for a variety of interesting and useful responses on the issues I’ve been taking up lately. I thought I’d go ahead and keep these up with a couple of continuing posts over the next couple of days on the issues that Hugh and the folks over at Librivox raise (at least raise for me).

When we listen to a book are we more or less experiencing the same literary phenomenon as when we read a book? In his responses earlier to me , Hugh seems to assume so (update–Hugh just sent me another post indicating this is not his position; that comment is accessible at the previous links), and certainly some of the folks in the Librivox forum state this more explicitly—in either case we’re experiencing the same literary work, yes? The reading historian and cultural critic in me—as well as the person who’s amateurishly interesting in the way language is processed in the brain—says…well…maybe. Our tendency to say “Of course it’s the same work of literature. It’s all words!” usually assumes that what is literary about literature is the content. One of the respondents in the forum is getting at something along these lines when he says what’s really important is what the words are pointing to, not the words themselves.

In other words form and media are just part of the delivery system. Who cares how it gets there, as long as it gets there, right?!

Maybe I can illustrate like this. John, Joan and Jimmy are traveling from point A on the east coast to point B on the west coast. They use a road that has a lane for cars, a lane for bicycles, and a lane for walking. John chooses to drive, Joan chooses to ride her bike, and Jimmy chooses to walk. The content theory of journeys would suggest that all three have had approximately the same experience because they have all traveled the same geographical terrain and have moved from point A to point B.

Most students of literature or linguistics would start pulling their hair out at this stage, since a basic tenet of what we do assumes that form matters. Those of us who believe in the centrality of form as well as the significance of time and context to experience would emphasize that John experienced a dramatically different journey in his car trip across country as compared to Jimmy or Joan, and not only because he got there faster. His environment was completely different, he noticed different things and processed them in different ways. A mountain that occupied a half hour of John’s attention, loomed in Jimmy’s pathway for perhaps four or five days. The mountain was a thing of beauty that John experienced from the distance of his car, while the mountain’s beauty was complicated for Jimmy by the fact that he had to walk up one side and down the other, that he worried about mountain lions rumoured to be in the hills, and by his knowledge that if it rained he was in for misery. So though the terrain is identical in one sense, we might well say these folks haven’t experienced the same thing at all.

We don’t have to assume that one journey is necessarily superior to the other—though, I don’t think the question of evaluation can be ruled out—but it’s not quite clear that John, Jimmy and Joan have experienced the same journey despite covering the same terrain. Because the delivery systems of their journies differed, the experience itself–in some sense even the terrain itself–was completely different.

Though the analogy is inexact, it seems to me that something similar applies to the journey we take through a text. It makes a difference whether we read it via scroll, papyri, book, e-book, e-mail, cell-phone, or audiobook–all methods of delivering text, of making the journey. Thus, I would say reading Huckleberry Finn and listening to Huckleberry Finn may not be the same experience delivered in different ways. I’m willing to say they might both be described as valuable cultural experiences, and we may want to even describe both experiences as literary. But it’s not clear that the same “work of literature” has been experienced regardless. In literary and in communication studies more broadly, media matters, in some respects matters at least as much as the content itself. Marshall McLuhan’s dicta that the media is the message gets at this idea. This doesn’t assume that reading is superior to listening; only that you aren’t experiencing the same literary thing when you listen as when you read.

A different take on this suggests how different media and different cultural contexts make it possible to process something as literature when it had never been literature before–which, presumably, might also mean that these same things could cease to be literature in a future cultural context (or that “literature” could cease to be a useful description for the experience of texts entirely.)

The one example I use in my earlier post is the Bible. Many parts of the Hebrew and Greek testaments were oral tradition prior to being written down. And when they were first written down they were written down on scrolls, which enable a particular kind of reading that is very different from that afforded by books. Now one way of talking about this would be to say that all of these things are merely different ways of delivering the same content. The cultural historian in me would point out that these different forms of the Bible led to and resulted in the Bible being read in very different ways and meaning very different things at different times. Protestantism is all but predicated on a particular mode of reading and receiving books that is probably unimaginable in an oral world or a world of scrolls.

(My saying things like this drives my fundamentalist brethren bonkers, but there you have it. When it comes to literature or the bible, most people are content-driven fundamentalists. A word is a word is a word is a word. It says what it means and it means what it says. And we literary theorists, poor dears, fold our hands and say, no, no its not…no, no it doesn’t).

The Bible is also a good example of the peculiar way in which media affects our understanding of what we are experiencing, and even shapes how we experience it. For instance, courses in the Bible as literature are primarily a modern development. People didn’t start talking about the Bible as a literary text until after Gutenberg; that is, right at the time when other books started taking their place alongside sacred texts as cultural authorities. Indeed, our entire concept of “literature” is really a development of the Gutenberg revolution, a result of the great mass of available things to read and the need to distinguish some things as really worth reading. Prior to Gutenberg, so few things were actually collected in to books that everything in print was, by definition, worth reading.

Thus, my qualified “maybe” to those who would say that in listening to a book you are experiencing the same “work of literature” as you experience in reading the same book. Indeed, we are already in a period that can probably usefully be described as post-literary—which includes, but means really much more than “a period when people don’t read books.” That is, we are probably in a period when the culture that needed the term “literature” to distinguish a particulary important form of cultural activity is in decline or has already passed. Ironically, though it is out of a love of “literature” that Librivox pursues its work and through which the devotees of audiobooks pursue their listening, the shift toward the aural/oral that such things signify may also point toward the end of literature as a usefully important concept in our cultural moment. And this may be so without making any judgment as to whether that is a good or bad thing. It may just be a different thing.

Lolita’s Bedroom—Or why marketing directors should read more novels.

What young family wouldn’t hold out the image of a sexually precocious 12-year-old as the image they hope their young daughters will have dancing in their heads as those innocent heads hit the pillow at night. The London Times reports that Woolworths has had to pull a certain ill-named piece of bedroom furniture from the market after a widespread internet protest by offended mothers.Woolworth’s Lolita bed

“The Lolita Midsleeper Combi, a whitewashed wooden bed with pull-out desk and cupboard intended for girls aged about 6, was on sale on the Woolworths website for £395.”

“Whereas many mothers were familiar with Vladimir Nabokov and his famous novel, it seems that the Woolworths staff were not. At first they were baffled by the fuss. A spokesman for the company told The Times: “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.””

Lolita book cover full sizeAs my colleague, Matt Roth, suggests it’s hard to know which is worse, that they made the bed in the first place, or that they didn’t know about one of the iconic literary figures of the past half-century.

However, given the international state of our reading crisis, perhaps its worth asking how so many mothers even knew who Lolita was. I wonder if they read the book or saw the movie.

In any case, cultural illiteracy will get you nowhere.

Still, I’m just a tad bit suspicious about Woolworth’s protestations
According to the same Times article, the Brits business community has a penchant for salacious pitches to the preadolescent crowd:

“In 2006 Tesco was removed its pole-dancing kit from the toys and games section of its website after it was accused of destroying children’s innocence.”

A pole-dancing kit. What every nine-year old girl wants for Christmas.

Similarly the BBC reports the following:

“In 2005, WH Smiths came under fire for selling youngsters stationery bearing the Playboy bunny – a symbol of the pornography empire.

“Prior to that Bhs decided to withdraw its Little Miss Naughty range of padded bras and knickers for pre-teen girls after attracting criticism.

I’m not sure what’s naughty about knickers. I thought it was just a weird British word for underwear. And according to the grammar they were padded anyway. Sounds uncomfortable to me. Still, I draw the line at padded bras for pre-teens.

For the record, I did a Google search on women named Lolita. Turns out there are thousands of them. And not just Lolita Davidovitch. And most of them aren’t even on sex sites. I’m sure that the Woolworth’s bedrooms set was probably named after the owner’s great aunt Lolita in Birmingham. And after all, it’s not pole-dancing. Come on people, lighten up!

Anyway, though I’m appalled at the marketing division’s literary illiteracy, isn’t it a great thing to see literature making a difference in the world.

More solid evidence that the NEA is correct in saying readers are more likely to be social activists. 😉

Listening as Reading

Some more about audiobooks today.

I still remember my shock and dismay a couple of years ago when I clicked on to the New York Times book page and found an advertisement of much a younger, more handsome and vaguely Mediterranean-looking young man who oozed sex appeal as he looked out at me from the screen with headphones on his ears.

“Why Read?” asked the caption.

Surely this was the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it, to say nothing of being a poor marketing strategy for a newspaper industry increasingly casting about in vain for new readers.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that audiobooks have developed a generally sexy and sophisticated cache for literary types that other shorthand ways to literature typically lack. As an English professor, I’ve been intrigued lately that a number of colleagues around and about have told me they listen to audiobooks to “keep up on their reading.” To some degree I’ve always imagined this as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I never read the book, but I watched the movie,” which has itself been about on a par with reading Sparknotes.

However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, another colleague recently took issue with my general despairing sense that the reading of literature, at least, is on the decline, no matter the degree to which students may be now reading interactively on the web. “Yes,” she said, “but what about audiobooks?” She went on to cite the growth in sales over the past few years as evidence that interest in literature may not be waning after all.

My immediate response is a little bit like that of Scott Esposito over at Conversational reading. In a post a couple of years ago Scott responded to an advocate of audiobooks with the following:

Sorry Jim, but when you listen to a book on your iPod, you are no more reading that book than you are reading a baseball game when you listened to Vin Scully do play-by-play for the Dodgers.

It gets worse:

[Quoting Jim] But audio books, once seen as a kind of oral CliffsNotes for reading lightweights, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else.

Well, if you’re doing something else then you’re not really reading, now are you? Listen Jim, and all other audiobookphiles out there: If I can barely wrap my little mind around Vollmann while I’m holding the book right before my face and re-reading each sentence 5 times each, how in the hell am I going to understand it if some nitwit is reading it to me while I’m brewing a cappuchino on my at-home Krups unit?

It’s not reading. It’s pretending that you give a damn about books when you really care so little about them that you’ll try to process them at the same time you’re scraping Pookie’s dog craps up off the sidewalk.

I have to grin because Scott is usually so much more polite. Nevertheless, I cite Scott at length because viscerally, in the deepest reaches of my id, I am completely with him and he said it better than I could anyway.

However, it’s worth pausing over the question of audiobooks a little further. I don’t agree with one of Scott’s respondents over at if:book, who describes listening to audiobooks as a kind of reading. But it is an experience related to reading, and so it’s probably worth parsing what kind of experience audiobooks actually provide and how that experience fits in with our understanding of what reading really is.

As I’ve said a couple of times, I think we lose sight of distinctions by having only one word, “reading,” that covers a host of activities. I don’t buy the notion that listening can be understood as the same activity as reading, though the if:book blog rightly points out the significance of audiobooks to the visually impaired. Indeed, one of my own colleagues has a visual disability and relies on audiobooks and other audio versions of printed texts to do his work. Even beyond these understandable exceptions, however, Scott’s definition of reading above privileges a particular model of deep reading that, in actual fact, is relatively recent in book history.

Indeed, going back to the beginnings of writing and reading, what we find is that very few people read books at all. Most people listened to books/scrolls/papyri being read. TheChrist reading in the synagogue temple reader and the town crier are the original of audiobooks and podcasts. In ancient Palestine, for instance, it’s estimated that in even so bibliocentric a culture as that of the Jewish people only 5 to 15% of the population could read at all, and the reading that went on often did not occur in deep intensive reading like that which Scott and I imagine when we think about what reading really is. Instead, much of the experience of reading was through ritual occasions in which scriptures would be read aloud as a part of worship. This is why biblical writers persistently call on people to “Hear the Word.” This model of reading persists in Jewish and Christian worship today, even when large numbers of the religious population are thoroughly literate. See Issachar Ryback’s “In Shul” for an interesting image from the history of Judaism.

Indeed, in the history of writing and reading, listening to reading is more the norm than not if we merely count passing centuries. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Reformation that the model for receiving texts became predominantly focused on the individuals intense and silent engagement with the written word of the book. In this sense, we might say that the Hebrews of antiquity weren’t bibliocentric so much as logocentric—word-centered but not necessarily book-centered.

Along these lines, the model of intense engagement—what scholars of book history call “intensive reading”—is only one historical model of how reading should occur. Many scholars in the early modern period used “book wheels” in order to have several books open in front book wheelof them at the same time. This is not exactly the same thing as multi-tasking that Scott abhors in his post, and it’s not exactly internet hypertexting, but it is clearly not the singular absorption in a text that we’ve come to associate with the word “reading.” “Reading” is not just the all-encompassing absorption that I’ve come to treasure and long for in great novels and poems, or even in great and well-written arguments. Indeed, I judge books by whether they can provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless, “Reading” is many things.

But to recognize this is not exactly the same thing as saying “so what” to the slow ascendancy of audiobooks, and the sense that books, if they are to be read at all, will be read as part of a great multi-tasking universe that we now must live in. Instead, I think we need to ask what good things have been gained by the forms of intensive reading that Scott and I and others in the cult of book lovers have come to affirm as the highest form of reading. What is lost or missing if a person or a culture becomes incapable of participating in this kind of reading.

By the same token, we should ask what kinds of things are gained by audiobooks as a form of experience, even if I don’t want to call it a form of reading. I’ve spent some time recently browsing around, which I’ll probably blog about more extensively in a future post. It’s fair to say that a lot of it turns absolutely wonderful literature into mush, the equivalent of listening to your eight-year-old niece play Beethoven on the violin. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some few of the readers on that service bring poetry alive for me in a way quite different than absorption in silence with the printed page. As I suggested the other day, I found Justin Brett’s renditions of Jabberwocky and Dover Beach, poems I mostly skim over when finding them in a book or on the web, absolutely thrilling, and I wanted to listen to everything I could possibly find that he had read.

This raises a host of interesting questions for a later day. What is “literature.” Is it somehow the thing on the page, or is it more like music, something that exists independently of its graphic representation with pen and ink (or pixel and screen). What is critical thinking and reading? I found myself thrilled by Brett’s reading, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily and in a single glance see how lines and stanzas fit together. I was, in some very real sense, at the mercy of the reader, no matter how much I loved his reading.

This raises necessary questions about the relationship between reader and listener. Could we tolerate a culture in which, like the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, reading is for the elite few while the rest of us listen or try to listen. At the mercy and good will of the literate elite—to say nothing of their abilities and deficiencies as oral interpreters of the works at hand.

More later