Friday, January 16, 2009

By the Book...worm

"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?"


Anonymous said...

Actually, surfing the net can be a more intense cognitive experience than just reading since your brain is continually initiating search goals, sifting, scanning, and analysing information's validity/usefulness, and then making desicions about whether to pursue further links and discard other irrelevant bits-- ie, it's utilising its executive functions. Brain scans of well-practised net users show extensive pre-frontal cortical activity when engaged thus. I guess book reading directs your attentional resources to the single act of proceeding from one sentence to the next -- the order of progression is pre-decided so the main focus is just on text interpretation; emotional response and intellectual or imaginative stimulation follow.

Internet use is often characterised as flitting from one bit of information to the next, never as deep immersion into a single narrative string that whisks you further and further into a unified thesis. More like flashing fairy lights than a concentrated burst of illumination.

So which is more fulfilling? I guess it depends on your requirements. The internet is good for quick general teasing out of the rudiments of an ujnknown topic; reading inclines to a more personalised thorough enjoyment of a particular line of interest (that may very well have its genesis in one of those randomt serendiptitous internet flings).

Books tend to clutter and gather dust, and sometimes kill -- high enough unstable stacks can literally collapse and bury a hapless hoarder!

Speaking of which, did you hear about that compulsive junk collector? Apparently 10 yrs of accumulated festering garbage 'arranged' to form a ceiling high complex labyrinth of nooks and tunnels eventually disoriented the constructor himself who unfortuantely became lost and possibly suffocated or dehydrated to death...

Novalis said...

Where's a good psychiatrist when you need one? Things are not to that point here, but I can attest that in any single residence the sheer physicality of books can become a major drawback.

Esther said...

I don't think book reading is going to go the way of the Dodo bird. There may be people who do not read books, but since when were there not?

One problem with books is that they occupy a lot of space and they're expensive (often). I try only to buy books that I am going to read or expect someone else will read. I give away the unneeded ones to the library. Most of the time I just check books out of the library because I can take them back and not have to worry about having a space to put them in. For older literature, it's very easy to find it online. I am not sure why that would be worse than reading it in book form. You can still read the entire book.

Also, who hasn't skimmed a book? I know I read all of most books, but occasionally I have skimmed through just to gather data relevant to a research paper.

I enjoy your blog by the way. Keep writing.