The Pew Research Center Report on Reading and e-books: Reading More and Reading Less

The Huffington Post had a somewhat different take on the Pew Research Center Report concerning reading than I had in yesterdays post:

The surveys of 2,986 respondents, carried out in English and Spanish at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, also showed that the average (calculated by mean) American reads 17 books a year.

However, 19% of respondents aged 16 and over said that they hadn’t read a single book in any format, over the previous 12 months – the highest since such surveys on American reading habits began in 1978. If this figure is accurate, that means more than 50 million Americans don’t read books at all.

 
This is the typical fare of discourse of the reading crisis that I’ve commented on extensively elsewhere.  In some ways it seems to me that this speaks to a kind of literacy divide–those who can concentrate and comprehend (or just tolerate) long-form texts and those who cannot.  I am no longer completely sure we have a reading crisis in the abstract. I think in some respects people are reading more than ever. But I do think we have a concrete reading crisis in the sense that long form reading of many types is becoming harder to sustain.  
 
The advantage of the codex, fewer distractions.  The disadvantage of the codex, we are living in a world of distraction.  One of Alex Juhasz’s insights at the Re:Humanities 2012 undergraduate conference a couple of weeks ago was that we have to figure out how to write for a world that is permanently distracted.  Is this a better world?  I doubt it.  Is it a reality?  I don’t know how to doubt that it is.  
 
The question is, how may one write in to that world while also intervening and resisting its most fragmenting and distracting aspects.  What kind of writing might both engage and accept distractedness while ultimately provoke focus and concentration or at least pointing to their possibility?
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Schlockey Books or Schlockey Television

Today at the New York Times Gail Collins reflects on a series of novels for teenage girls called The Twilight Saga:

I read the first two Twilights, searching for the key to their success. (This is where the part about being not all that deep comes in handy.) The attraction is clearly the vampire hero, who is a perfect gentleman, eternally faithful and — as the author points out repeatedly — quite a hunk. (“He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare … A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.”)

Before you make fun of this, I want you to seriously consider whether you’re interested in denigrating people who spend their leisure time actually reading books rather than watching “America’s Got Talent.”

A lot of times Collins makes me grimace.  I mean, just how long can one write for the New York Times and maintain the naive midwestern outsider pose.  On the other hand, this essay made me howl.  And she raises the interesting point that N+1 dismissed a couple of years back in its own analysis of our reading crises. According to N+1 we’ve been so obsessed with the reading crisis that we’re just thrilled people read anything at all, and they go on in good, and dare I say it snobby and Ivy-educated fashion, to dismiss the readerly pleasures of the hoi-polloi.

Still, I think Collins has a point.  The choice isn’t between the Twilight novels and Herman Melville, the choice is between Harry Potter and I Survived a Japanese Game show.  Given this choice, I’m glad my daughter chooses the Twilight novels–or their ilk.

(Side note:  A friend of mine who used to work regularly in Japan says Japanese regularly gather in parks to ridicule and laugh at American tourists.  Why do we even need a game show to accomodate them?)

Of course, I still hold out desperate hope that she’ll choose Melville or Shakespeare or Austen or Chopin or just anything that might get anthologized rather than forgotten.  But even if this hope is not delivered on, I still think there’s something better about having her read several ten thousands of words and exercise her imagination on the page than spend her time watching people consume cockroaches in the name of entertainment.

Printosaurus

There’s a funny and insightful piece from Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail about being out of step with the times as a thirty something who still reads the newspaper. The occasion for her fretting is a recent piece in the New Yorker on the end of newspapers. An excerpt from McLaren’s ruminations on being an anachronism.

There’s nothing left to do but give up and donate myself to the Newseum of printPrintosaurus journalism, which is about to reopen in multimillion-dollar digs in Washington. They can encase me in glass, under a plaque that reads Female Printosaurus Rex, last known example of the now-extinct species: newspaper columnist.

But maybe the situation is not quite so bad. After all, it seems a bit ironic that all this agonizing about the death of our literary culture has occurred in the pages of newspapers, books and magazines. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in her Harper’s rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, the haute bourgeoisie (also affectionately known, in Web generation parlance, as “white people”) have always revelled smugly in the knowledge that only an anointed minority enjoyed the same privileges they did. In fact, the only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.

Well, I have to say that I take some comfort in the fact that being a paper junkie still links me to other generations. And in observing my kids, it seems to me that things are really not so absolutely definitive as technophobes or digital utopians would have it. To some degree this kind of either/or–either everyone will give up paper or everyone will eventually recognize that digital texts are a waste of good silicon–is a little like what passes for debate on Fox News. Get the most extreme positions imaginable since people seem to like conflicts between clearly defined goods and evils.

Still, my son, 13, gets up every morning and reads the sports page. He even goes out in the morning and gets the paper if his trusty dog…er, I mean his parents…haven’t brought it in yet. He also reads an extraordinary amount of old fashioned books, wedging it in around the extraordinary amount of time he spends skateboarding and watching YouTube videos. My daughter facebooks more than I care for her to, but she also reads quite a bit and enjoys good old fashioned books.

In some ways my kids are unusual, but they aren’t unique. I suspect that books–even good old fashioned print books– are going to end up somewhere on a continuum of entertainment and educational choices. No longer dominant but still important. Same for newspapers. Just as television didn’t bring movies to and end, and movies didn’t bring novels to an end. More a menu of choices rather than stark divisions.

I am interested in McLaren’s take on Ursula Le Guin. It does seem to me that the readers of “serious” fiction, alongside “serious” readers of fiction–two groups that are by no means coextensive–have always been an influential minority. Maybe what’s at stake in a reading crisis, then, is not so much the sense that no one will read books anymore, but that books are losing the aura of necessity. Even if serious reading has always been the province of a minority, book readers have had the pleasure of social prestige. People always felt like they should read more even if they didn’t. Now, however, that perception has passed.

What does Einstein know, anyway?

I picked this quotation up from by jan on freedom.

“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”
–Albert Einstein

Ha! Well, Einstein lived in a different age than ours, that’s for sure. I’m more worried that my students’ lives are so frantic and busy–who am I kidding, I KNOW my own life is so frantic and busy–that I hardly have time to read and reflect. I have to schedule the time in my calendar. Reading as task. Indeed, people who manage to find time for reading may be the most industrious among us. Seriously though, I have a big sense that the so-called reading crisis has less to do with television and the internet than it does with our frantic American sense of having to get things done.

Or, given the realities of workplace “efficiency”–a code for fewer people doing more work–it’s not just the frantic “sense” its the frantic “reality” of having to get stuff done. Or else.

At the end of the day, who has the energy for the work reading requires. Much easier to curl up with American Idol.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.

Who’s Reading Now? Or, Crises Ad Nauseum

Trolling around The New York Times I came across this gem.

Ok, so only someone thinking about writing a book on reading would think it’s a gem, but I’ve got to write about something today. Everything’s material.

“The measure of all worth seems to be the question, “does it pay?” The attitude of the vast majority of the American people is distinctly inimical to the pursuit of culture for its own sake, and there are few men who read habitually after leaving college, simply because they are compelled to devote all their time and energies to the making of money in order that they may be regarded as of importance among their fellow-men. “How much is he worth?” That is the question by which the majority of people decide the value of a man….

“[As] long as the money-making ability of a man is taken as the true measure of his worth (and there are many who argue earnestly that it should be,) reading for culture, which is the highest form of reading, will be at a discount, whether among college-bred men or others. Nevertheless we think it highly probably that if an investigation could be made with accuracy, it would be found that the percentage of men who read entirely aside from the professional demands and purely for the sake of culture, would be found to be larger among university men than others.”

The language probably betrays that this isn’t the NEA’s study on the decline of reading, though it’s equally as earnest. It’s from 1900, an article titled “How Reading Does Not Pay” responding to and extending an earlier article that recounted the surprising decline of reading by undergraduates at Princeton University. Of course, all things are relative. I traced down the earlier article, “Reading of University Men,” and it appears that in 1900 20 percent of male Princetonians–the only kind of Princetonians there were, actually–had read Sartor Resartus, 30 percent had read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and nearly 80 percent had read Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I include the links to Project Gutenberg because…well…who knows if anyone reads these works anymore. I did as an English major two and a half decades ago, but most of the students in our department graduate without having read these particular texts and many others that an earlier generation considered necessary. Necessary for what, I leave unstated.

I would mostly be glad if I could just get 80% of the students at my college to read a newspaper, online or no. I did a survey of reading at my college as part of a class a couple of years ago and found that about a 1/3 of the students read even one book a year that was not assigned for a course. Survey’s being what they are, I suspect the statistics are inflated.

We could probably argue about what this suggests about the reality of our own “reading crisis,” such as it is. Digital utopians would, I know, point feverishly to the fact that students now spend a lot of time reading, and writing! New forms of literacy. To which I might say, “Yes, they punch text messages into their 2 by 3 inch phone screens and cackle maniacally at the latest picture with two sentence caption posted to their Facebook pages.” This is a little like giving folks credit for using the English language. Ok, I’m cranky, but also half serious. I do agree with the thesis that a lot of what passes for writing and reading on the web is more like conversation than writing–with all the good and bad things that implies. I don’t think writing has ever been simply a substitution for talking, and the forms of mental and imaginative engagement required by older forms of reading are significantly different than those necessary for conversation.

Still, I’m a little more interested in the rhetoric of concern that motivates discussions about reading. I’m struck by both the familiar and the distinctive flavors of this particular reading crisis at the turn of the last century. On the one hand the lamentation of reading’s decline, and the sense of some relationship between reading and cultural leadership. Readers are rightfully the big men on the Princeton campus aren’t they, these articles seem to assume, just as, in the NEA’s vision at least, Readers are the movers and shakers and thinkers we need to be competitive in the global economy.

Readers as Big Men on campus? Well, here is the flavor of difference. I doubt this is true at Princeton anymore, if it was then. Indeed, the account registers mostly the fear that this isn’t the case, that the rightful place of the cultivated man has been diminished. And what counts as a big man on campus is, more and more, the very capacity to make money that these late Victorians think of as polluting the superior man who should read only for culture, a more high-faluting version of the NEA’s concern with reading for pleasure. Mostly, in fact, our own reading crises are put in the explicit language of political and economic profits and deficits. The failure to read will damage the economy and damage our civic life. The triumph of business in higher education is nowhere more clearly registered than in our efforts to justify reading on the basis that it will help create better middle level managers. The idea of reading for culture alone is not even on the radar, except perhaps in its professionalized version in the mind of Stanley Fish.

More tomorrow on other varieties of reading crises I’ve stumbled over the last couple of days. Sometimes these are seized on by digital utopians as evidence that the NEA is crying wolf. I think they raise a more interesting question. Why is reading always in crisis? And how do the shape of these crises–which I’m willing to say are to a very large degree creations of discourse–and the rhetorical forms through which they are articulated suggest changing cultural values? And why do we choose to narrate cultural crises through crises in reading.

This isn’t at all intuitive to me. The terms change, the cultural positions morph and realign, but what is it about reading that leads folks to assume repeatedly and ad nauseum that we are in a crisis. We seem to have reading crises with the approximate frequency of menstrual cycles. What is it about the nature of reading that leads us to fret over its fragility?

Articles Cited:

How Reading Does Not Pay
New York Times. June 16, 1900
Section: SATURDAY REVIEW OF BOOKS AND ART, Page BR16, 622 words

READING OF UNIVERSITY MEN.
June 2, 1900
Section: The New York Times SATURDAY REVIEW OF BOOKS AND ART, Page BR8, 641 words

Fresh Start

I suppose I should just start by saying that I’ve never blogged before, and really only got started reading blogs recently. I spent an hour trying to figure out what template to use, and am still not quite sure I’m happy. I’m not sure what to anticipate about readers of this blog, or whether I would be distressed if the only people who read it are family who feel obligated or students curious about their prof. Nevertheless, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to think of “what looked best.” After getting the page up, I read somewhere that choosing generic terms like “Read” or “Write” for a title and domain name is also a bad idea. So I’m off to a poor start.

Still, I guess what I’m interested in is the peculiar shape of those everyday things people do without thinking, like reading and writing. In Michel de Certeau’s phrase, The Practice of Everyday Life. So if the title is banal, perhaps at least I’ll figure out some mildly interesting things to say about these banal topics.In part my new interest in blogging springs from being a teacher and trying to think about how my students communicate, the media through which they read and write, and how that media affects the way they read and write.

All of this is, I realize, old hat to experts in the field of electronic communication. But I guess one thing that’s intrigued me about the world of blogs is how things like expertise count and do not count. Do degrees and essays published and lectures given and promotions received–all the typical means of accruing status and clout in the traditional worlds of academe and even print more generally–do these things really count for much in a world of blogs? I guess it would be naïve to say that they don’t count at all, but my general sense is that people don’t read an academic’s blog because she is an intellectual. When an academic accrues some status on the web (how “status” is determined on the web is an intriguing side interest) I think it’s because she reads and writes well, does it in some kind of imaginative and effective way. The triumph, again, of rhetoric, if in a very different shape and form. This I’m interested in exploring.Thus the title of this blog: “Read, Write, Now.” I’m interested in what’s happening with reading first, and then secondarily how that’s related to writing. I got interested in the topic first with the general explosion of interest in the so-called “reading crisis.” I say so-called not to indicate a cynical disregard for the concerns being raised by the NEA and so many others. Indeed, I really do think that something critical is going on with reading, and I’m not so convinced as digital utopians that what’s happening is all to the good. I’ve snuck a look at my daughter’s Facebook page and those of a number of my students. If this is reading, it’s not hard to imagine why reading comprehension shrinks apace, as does the tolerance for a text even so long as the one I’m now writing. I wonder about the possibilities of democracy in a culture where educated persons have difficulty giving sustained attention to a document as long as the Declaration of Independence (a text I used to require as a short assignment). Still, the nature of what’s happening and its consequences are unclear to me and I want to figure that out and reflect on some of those issues over the course of the next year or so. Additionally, one of the things that fascinates me most is the way reading is imagined in the present. Not so much what reading is, but how the idea and image of reading is functioning in our current cultural climate. Finally, I admit it, “Read” is broad and vague and all-encompassing enough to let me join the millions of others who write about books they like or don’t like.

“Write” probably follows naturally from read. Until very recently I’ve considered myself a writer first—a self-definition I’ve discarded in favor of “Reader”, if for no other reason to poke fun at my students who claim they really love to write but hate to read. Let’s give readers the prestige for once. I’m interested in the interaction of reading and writing. How what we’re reading shapes what we write, and perhaps just as importantly, how the way we write affects the way we read. I finished an MFA at the University of Montana, and I’m still convinced these many years later that it did more for me as a reader than my later graduate studies at Duke.

“Now” may be least important—or too hopelessly vague as a topic–but I guess I’m primarily interested in the shape of reading and writing in the present. How are we different from previous generations, and should we care? Given that the title puns on an imperative—Read right now—I hope, too, that the “now” reflects my own sense of urgency, my sense that reading is important and not to be taken for granted.“Now” also means I can talk about whatever the heck I want, just in case I get bored with reading and writing. Or in case you do.