The Fate of Reading

I’ve been thinking a bit about the current state of literacy in the wake of reading the Times article I posted yesterday, and I’m very troubled.  On one level I’m perfectly fine with the idea of on-line reading skills replacing the previous printed page paradigm for some people.  They are two totally different skill sets and I don’t believe one is necessarily superior to the other, and if the end result is more people reading then that’s great.

But I am worried that what’s going to get lost eventually are our current ideas of narrative and story.  On-line reading is great at promoting critical thinking and research skills, but I find it also tends to distribute a person’s focus in ways that are anathema to the ways one traditional reads.  And maybe this is something harmful in the long run.

One of the ongoing theories to come out of Readercon is the idea that storytelling is something ingrained in the wiring of our brains.  Cold facts cannot convince a person of a new idea nearly as well as a good story can (yes this is the faith vs. science argument).  For another example just try to tell someone about your day by merely listing your itinerary without embellishing it a little.  Those little details change your life into a story, and are the only way to really hold another person’s interest.

We need narrative in our lives, and that is what gets stripped out when we bounce around like we do while web surfing.  And if the theory about stories and how we think is true then maybe this way of reading could prove to be outright harmful.

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2 Comments on “The Fate of Reading”

  1. Jason Says:

    I wouldn’t worry about it. This kind of relates to what some researchers call the “River City” effect: the assumption that if people are doing Fun Thing X, they will not be doing Culturally Valuable Thing Y. We should be worried, say the finger-waggers, that X will replace Y entirely! There are, however, some problems with these assumptions—problems so great that I think it’s save to ignore the finger-waggers entirely.

    First, as you said in your last post, is the fact that the “all or nothing” tone is unnecessary. Second, as I’m sure you’ve argued elsewhere, is the fact that basic computer literacy and facility with interactive textual communications are valuable in their own rights, no less so than “high” arts. Third, the real kicker, is the fact that in pre-internet days, kids were doing other things to avoid reading entirely. Most kids have no interest in being intellectuals, meaning that it’s not the majority who have ever been reading old-fashioned books for fun, by their own accord and not just at the urging of parents. (Maybe you can shut that belief down with your librarian-knowledge.)

    But the biggest problem with this whole debate is the assumption that the rise of one medium means the fall of another. It’s true that some media get relegated to narrower roles as other media improve upon what they’ve done, but it’s rare that a culturally pervasive mass medium and all its associated functions completely disappear. So sure, we don’t have fictional radio dramas like The Shadow anymore because that sort of storytelling function got replaced by TV and movies (and podcasting..?). But “narrative” in itself is in no danger.

  2. geekylibrarian Says:

    I agree with you that one is not going to entirely replace the other, but I’m still curious about the effect of a writing/reading style that doesn’t come to us naturally. The way we use language can have a very real effect on the way we think and this is something that, while it won’t replace narrative, may not play nicely with it.

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