Defining Reading

3 Aug

For a final paper for a summer class at McGill’s School of Information Studies (SIS), I was asked to contemplate the question of the demise of reading. I argued that rather than the demise of reading, we should be considering the evolution of reading since forms of reading and writing have been evolving for longer than millennia. Even Socrates lamented an evolution in the popularity of writing that he felt ““[gave] only the semblance of truth; [students] will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality” .

The topic of my paper came about from “Reading at Risk” a report from 2004 on the decline of reading in America and in its 2007 follow-up report “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence”.  In these reports the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) predicts the demise of literary reading as a leisure activity within half a century.  However, much like Socrates, the NEA’s reports rely on an obvious preference for the status quo; a narrow definition of reading that focuses on the reading of fiction in print format for leisure purposes.

I argued that with the incredible transformations that have occurred in the 21st century society due to the invention of the internet, it is unrealistic to expect that the concept of reading remain the same as it was in past centuries.  Thanks to the popularity of Web 2.0, the tendency of passive reading has evolved into a reading-writing relationship. People are now participating in communities of dialogue where formats like blogs and on-line editorials allow readers to interact with authors and with other readers.

Of course upon reading these comments my dad argued that when he read, he did not wish to participate in a dialogue but rather he reads as a form of escapism, to become lost in a good  story with intriguing characters.  I agree that there is a lot of be said for this act of escapism. Why else would I and so many other people be addicted to Sophie Kinsella books? However,  as a future librarian, I cannot assume that this form of reading will remain popular throughout my entire career.  I admit that I prefer a good novel like the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer to any blog posts I’ll read, but I recognize that librarians must be ready for whatever evolution in reading comes their way. Unlike the NEA, I will not sit back and cry that people aren’t “reading” anymore.  I will be ready to meet the needs of my future patrons, but perhaps I will keep a stack of good novels in my back room, just in case!


7 Responses to “Defining Reading”

  1. Jen August 5, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    I read more text, but less content, in the last few years. But maybe that has something to do with recently finishing a graduate degree?
    Anyhow, enough internet for the night–I’m going to read a book!

  2. Steven Chabot August 11, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    “Thanks to the popularity of Web 2.0, the tendency of passive reading has evolved into a reading-writing relationship. People are now participating in communities of dialogue where formats like blogs and on-line editorials allow readers to interact with authors and with other readers.”

    This point makes two assumptions, both of which are questionable:

    1. Past readers–book readers–were “passive”.
    2. Current readers–Internet readers–have a reading-writing relationship.

    Books like Ross’s Reading Matters show that this first point is problematic, given that readers have always been social in sharing and discussing their works.

    As for your second point, I question whether the “reading-writing” done now is somehow equal to the reading-writing done before. You’re earlier post mentions your belief that any discussion leads to critical thinking, but I am doubtful whether 140 characters to make a point and 140 characters to make a reply qualifies as critical thinking. Postman has spoken at length about how media makes discussion of certain topics at sufficient length for critical discussion difficult.

    • biblioblond August 12, 2009 at 4:42 am #

      Since I encouraged people to respond to my posts with their own opinions, I should be prepared to handle comments that debate the validity of the statements in my posts. However, I would like to thank you because the very act of posting your counter-arguments to my statements demonstrates my point.

      Although past readers might not have been completely passive, the internet provides a platform for discussion to a greater number of people then ever before. Considering that neither of us are published authors or journalists, prior to Web 2.0, it is unlikely that we would have read others’ writing and even less likely that you would have had the opportunity to question me on potential weaknesses in my argument. Debates have always been common in newspaper editorials, classrooms, and pubs (the more beer consumed, the more lively the discussion). Now I can discuss ideas with people from across the world from different cultural, economic and generational backgrounds which I think is incredible because it opens doors for more interaction.

      As for your second point, you have demonstrated that is more than possible within the space of a blog comment to critically analyze the ideas put forward by the author. Thank you for your comments!

      • Steven Chabot August 12, 2009 at 4:58 am #

        And what I am saying is that, on the contrary, it is quite likely that we would have read each other’s writing and offered our comments.

        We are of the same age, in the same profession, and we attended professional programs not that far from one another. We are professionals and colleagues. Who is to say that we wouldn’t have a nice back and forth in some professional journal somewhere 50 years ago.

        Far from fostering “cultural, economic and generational” interaction, studies show time and again that, in reality, people tend to stick to Internet discussions which confirm their own beliefs, opinions, and world views.

        Is it more likely that I run into a well thought out and reasoned argument counter to my own beliefs now, or when the average large city had 30+ daily newspapers which were regularly read by various classes and social groups. Who is to say? But I refuse to take the Myth of the Digital Sublime at face value because early adopters like librarians say that we should.

  3. biblioblond August 12, 2009 at 9:16 am #

    I have no doubt that 50 years ago you would have sought out channels by which to debate issues and have lively exchanges. You seem extremely well read and you have a strongly developped esprit critique. I, on the other hand, have gained a certain confidence in knowing that a blog does not seem as absolute as something published in a journal.
    Despite my graduate studies, I do not consider myself to be an academic and I often struggle to articulate properly what I am thinking. I suspect that I am not the only one. Web 2.0 is after all full of nonsense and irrelevant observations. I am using this blog as an exercise to force myself to tackle my opinions and those of others in a relatively « safe » environment. I cannot see myself having done this even 20 years ago with the forums present at that time.

  4. Jimmy Paquet August 31, 2009 at 9:41 am #

    I dont’ think that reading as a kind of escapism from our daily activities will ever disappear. As such, it is still to this day one of the major reasons why people take the time of their day to go through an interesting book. They could use that time for something else, but they chose the book to escape all else. That has been a truth for centuries, and will probably remain so. I don’t believe that reading a book and reading a blog post are one and the same. A blog post can be written by anybody, and therefore can be as flawed or as great as the author. Books, on the other hand, are normally selected by publishers. And the readers normally would expect good writing, very few grammatical or syntaxic mistakes, in other words, a piece of art. Would I read a book written by an author with a poor vocabulary and a story that goes nowhere? Probably not. And if yes, I would probably not finish it. Whereas blogs, a quick look on the web will show that they are not always well-though with a content deserving our interest. And most of them can’t replace the escapism that people find in books. They replace the talks in pubs around a pint or two, but not a good book. Plus, blogs are limited as to where you can read them. Call me old fashion, but I do not bring my laptop with me when nature calls, but a good book is always a friend anywhere I go.

    • Katia September 19, 2009 at 11:08 pm #

      very well said! I completely agree with you here, Jimmy!

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