"A little in nature's infinite book of secrecy I can read."
Soothsayer (Antony and Cleopatra)
I pick up a book every now and then, so I was interested to see another elegy on reading's long-foreseen demise, this one by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantis. She cogently presents the standard arguments for reading's unique and endangered virtues; bibiophile that I am, part of me sympathizes, yet I'm not sure that I buy the overall panic. But there must be many stages of moderation between her the-Dark-Ages-have-come-again gloom and the simplistic better-living-through-screens views of Internet boosters.
The problem is that like other book apologists, Rosen begins with distinctly moral advocacy of reading (and we are talking habitual and volitional reading here, not literacy in the basic and technical sense), but glides inevitably into wistful appreciations of the aesthetic culture of books. The two points of view raise rather different issues.
Rosen argues, like other literary eulogists, that reading uniquely exercises powers of concentration and attention, which in turn enable facility with abstract concepts, the kind of faculty which, as she points out, has powered modernity for the past five centuries. How does reading do this? Well, the central point seems to be that reading requires humility and "submission" (Rosen's word) to the author, that is, a certain openness to another's reality. In other words, in undertaking reading one acknowledges one's ignorance about some corner of reality and approaches a teacher in the guise of a learner.
To make sense of a book, one has to patiently proceed from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page, much like Dante being guided through hell by Virgil. In contrast, in a computer format one is immediately "empowered" to scan however few words per pages one wishes and to click away with barely a thought. Unlike a book experience, one doesn't take the author whole, but rather skims over whatever bits and pieces one thinks are relevant; Rosen would argue that one often doesn't know ahead of time what is relevant and what isn't--that's part of what a book is supposed to teach.
The argument reminds me of the lament over the rise of music singles over albums; while one "submits" to hearing a full album to learn what "teachings" it may hold, with an mp3 player one is free to jump around from track from track, even from chord to chord. In a metaphorical version of this argument, if book-reading is gliding above a forest, dipping low from time to time to appreciate individual trees, then screen-reading is like driving among the trees at high speed--one may feel more in control and more intimate with the experience, but the actual result is disorientation.
Rosen even quotes a description of screen-users as "promiscuous, diverse, and volatile." Wow, that would certainly seem to be directed at bloggers--I'm thinking of myself differently already. Forget the library--where's the party?
I don't know that reading is mainly about submission. On the contrary, books offer enormous liberation as compared, say, to attending live performances (at a theater today or, in pre-literate cultures, at some oral storytelling event). One is free to take in a book at one's own speed, to reread, to skim at times, and of course to say the hell with a particular work without having to offend anyone.
There is no doubt that reading is a very worthwhile and even (trans)formative experience for those who relish it; the question is whether it inculcates skills and virtues that necessarily carry over into non-literary avenues of life. As Rosen notes, Harold Bloom among others has thought not, that reading is a deeply personal and spiritual activity, but not one that enhances the wider culture in any straightforward way.
So far as I know, the alleged cognitive and emotional virtues of reading are based largely on speculation and anecdote ("kids these days just seem more distractible"). I know we're talking about prose above a certain moderate level of complexity, but are we talking only fiction here? Is philosophy better or worse than history or fiction, and does biography count?
And as I said, such concerns always seem to segue into panegyrics about the aesthetics of books--the feel and even the smell of them and their paper, the pleasures of scanning a bookshelf, etc. While Rosen seems aware of being deemed an old fogey (I don't know her age or if she is in fact a fogey), she can't resist references to young people being noisier in libraries than they used to be (kids these days!). Well, I think books are sexy too, but the aesthetic details are irrelevant to the wider cultural concerns; I'm sure that with the advent of the automobile some mourned the loss of leisurely rides in an open carriage drawn by fine horses (an experience for which people continue to pay for today, it is worth pointing out).
There is no doubt that things are changing, but it remains an open question whether for the Worse. Book-reading seems unlikely to become "an arcane hobby," as Rosen puts it, and I would guess that books and screens will be complementary, that is, used for different purposes, for most folks who read at all (and recall that there have always been people who, even if they could read, have not done so for fun). But avid book-lovers probably will become more uncommon. Many opera-lovers probably assume that society would be much better off if more people loved opera; some book folks are likely the same way.
Rosen's essay notes that one study showed regular book-readers to be high Internet-users as well, but I wonder what age groups that involved, and whether that is a transitional phenomenon. My family got our first computer, a Neolithic Commodore 64, probably when I was in my early teens, so my generation is unusual in getting computer exposure at an impressionable time, but also in having pre-computer memories.
So let's see--if you visit this site you know your way around the Internet but presumably have some off-the-beaten-search-engine interests. Are the days of books "fallen into the sere?"