He sets out, he says, not to debunk the US National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence released last month (very scary reading indeed), which:
... synthesises a number of studies to conclude that Americans, especially younger ones, are reading less, that they are reading less well and that these trends have disturbing implications for culture, civics and the national economyRather, he sets out to explore the fact that:
... reading and conversations about reading are in a state of flux.He makes the point that we tend to value reading in depth rather more than the equally valid reading laterally (i.e. across a much larger number of sources, comparing and cross-checking).
He points out the the NEA report is very much concerned with the reading of novels and other literary works. Yet, he says, in historical terms this is a relatively recent phenomena:
Until well into the 19th century, novel reading was regarded in Europe as a pastime fit mostly for women and the indolent, and a potentially dangerous one, as women in particular could not be trusted to distinguish fiction from reality.He also asks:
...what it means to read and what it means to have read something. When can we claim a book has been read? What is the dividing line between reading and skimming? Must we consume a book in its entirety - start to finish, cover to cover - to say we have read it?The question is one I ponder constantly. I seem to be increasingly dipping into books, and I speed read most non-fiction. But I do slow right down to enjoy fiction when its well-written, even reading the same passage several times over.
We need to teach out kids in schools how to become flexible readers, able to enjoy the full richness of fiction, but equally at home carrying out tasks like consulting a variety of reference sources online, and reading for gist.
Book literacy as well as screen literacy. Both.
And organisations like the National Library which commission reading studies need to encourage researchers to take this variety into account as well, instead of measuring reading solely by the vague criteria of numbers of books read. (How do they measure anything? The last survey as far as I know is still a state secret when it should be available for the scrutiny of all interested parties!)
Is reading on screen any less valid that reading on paper? Kirschenbaum doesn't think so:
... anecdotally my instinct is that computer users are capable of projecting the same aura of deep concentration as the stereotypical bookworm.Particularly when their first reaction to an online text is to talk back to it!
Now where did the whole bloody morning go?
(Kirschenbaum's blog, incidentally, is here.)
A very interesting response to Kirshenbaum's piece on the If:Book blog with a whole lot of good discussion in the comments.
(Painting by La tartine gourmand)