Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What Counts as Reading?

Matthew Kirschenbaum in the Australian (in a piece which originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education) argues that with the coming of new technology (particularly developments with Google and Amazon's Kindle), our reading habits just cannot be judged according to old criteria.

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 economy
Rather, 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)


GUO SHAO-HUA said...

it is extremely difficult to get people (kids and adults alike) to read and enjoy all kinds of books. most people only read what they enjoy reading, and would not venture into anything unfamiliar. it's the same with movies, people always want more of the same.

to tear yourself away from your comfort zone and discover more of what's out there is like getting out of quicksand.

i think it's not just Americans, but everywhere else as well, and that it's not that people read less, but they don't read as widely.

i find a lot of people i know read stuff like the Shopaholic series, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Harry Potter, etc. ok, they like what they like, but the problem is, that's all they ever read.

Erin said...

I try and try to get my son into reading. I have gotten him a bit more into it through comics, as it all has to start somewhere right? He's six and learning to read but doesn't seem motivated by it or to enjoy books yet. I'm hoping that changes as his father doesn't read and he doesn't have influence toward literary works in THAT department.

Since I love reading so much, I'm always surprised so few people seem to anymore ;( *sniff, sniff

bibliobibuli said...

comics are good, erin, whatever he enjoys

i grew up on comics (and must blog about that one day soon!)

i guess the best thing is to read to him and let him help chose books in the library and bookshop

also seeing you reading should get him interested

Chet said...

Beano and Dandy?

And Jackie, too?

bibliobibuli said...

yes. and "bunty" and "judy" and "diana".

ANIQ said...

I married into a family that doesn't read - and they proudly claim so. It became frustrating at first, but I slowly inched my reading passion into their elements. I started my husband on very thin books, and lots of motor magazines. (I practically shove them under his nose). And I put books everywhere around the house - just so that when they plonk on the sofa, they will reach for it ut of curiosity. It's been 2 years now. It's working. They haven't reach a love for fiction level yet, but I just got to be patient instead of complaining and quit trying.

Alex Tang said...

An interesting and important post.

What actually does constitute reading? Does reading involve following a sentence from left to right on a printed page or by hyperlink jumping from web page to webpage on a cmputer screen? You use the word literary literacy. What about media literacy?

Your post does identfies the need to redefine reading.

Chet said...

Depending on the language you use, reading can also involve following a sentence from right to left, or top to bottom.

fizah said...

Hi Sharon!

I went to a marathon reading of Milton's Paradise Lost last Sunday! Whew. tht's one way to finish reading something you won't finish on your own.

From what my non-readers friends are telling me, they view reading almost like a chore, an extra work to do. After I introduced them to some books or poetry, they told me that they never knew reading could be fun!

Anonymous said...

Okay a defintion of reading (ie. reading books) :

Reading a book is like watching a movie. The only difference is that it plays out in your head instead of on a screen.

Reading is fun if the book is good, just like watching a movie is fun if the movie is good. the problem is that there are very few good books, and a lot of the awful stuff gets published. So after your tenth crappy novel, you really DO want to say, ah forget it, fishing is fun even if I don't catch anything.

A bad book is so much more affecting than other pastimes or hobbies because of this. If you read a bad book, you've just wasted your time and effort. It's like opening up your heart to a stranger just to see him stab you in the back. You invest your time and effort, and not only do you get nothing back, you get annoyed and irritated in the bargain.

That's reading books, as opposed to reading other stuff like mags and webpages.

Any medium is valid as long as it plays the movie in your head. That's what I think.

Reading can be fun but so can writing :)

BK said...

And I thought my problem was too many good books, too little time.

Anonymous said...

Well if you have too many books you can lend me a few lol :) my problem is that maybe out of ten books one is good, so that one good book ends up costing like Rm800.

OTOH most classics are free, so maybe it IS true what they say about the best things in life :)

Anonymous said...

Oh and let's not forget Wizzer (and Chips !) but I will stop spamming now (really !)