Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Are we losing the ‘art of reading’ in the digital age?

by Sylvia Warnecke

Ghana student reading with Worldreader CoFounder David Risher 
Ghana student reading with Worldreader CoFounder David Risher,©Worldreader

When searching sites such as amazon, it is surprising to see the number of recent publications that express anxieties about the ‘loss of reading’. We come across titles such as David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Readingin an Electronic Age, or Jeff Gomez’ Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age. Such titles alone convey a pessimistic rhetoric using terminology of ‘fate’, ‘death’ or ‘loss’. But what are these books really mourning? What are we losing in these ‘distracted times’? 

To find answers, one just has to look for the readers’ comments on these books, which confirm that authors as well as readers seem to find it difficult to pinpoint this sense of loss when they amalgamate the written word, print, reading, time, silence, distraction and many ‘feelings’ in one equation. S Riaz, one of Ulin’s readers, asks: “With so many things competing for our time, is there still a place for books in our life?” and gives an interesting answer: “[Ulin] is not overly negative, but he is quick to point out the delights of 'real' books over ereaders and to say he dislikes the 'grey' uniformity of the kindle screen. […]I have to disagree with him. I find reading my kindle as engaging as reading a book and a useful tool for having many books with me when I travel." Las cosas’ comment adds to the impression that Ulin’s argument might have missed rather than hit the nail on the head: “I also found his argument for reading too meandering, too filled with personal stories. One problem with the internet is that it is too easy to wander off subject, to flit on the surface of endless topics. It is thus ironic that this book suffers from the same problem.” Andrew Stauffer reveals another contradiction in our anxieties about reading when commenting on Birkerts’ text: “[He] doesn't approve of what you're doing right now. Reading (or writing) an on-line review of his recent book, is like discussing an exercise program over hot fudge sundaes: we are participating in the burgeoning electronic culture that Birkerts urges his readers to resist.” And Stephen Bishop highlights that Gomez: “gets seriously confused between whether it is books as printed objects which are dead, or the habit of reading books which is in decline - and would still be so if all books were on e-readers.”

Many recent studies of children’s reading habits focus on similar anxieties and their findings reveal similar confusions. Scholastic’s The Kids & Family Reading Report is one such example exposing apparently conflicting messages: “Half of children age 9-17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to ebooks – a 50% increase since 2010. […] Eighty percent of kids who read ebooks still read books for fun primarily in print [and] fifty-eight percent of kids age 9-17 say they will always want to read books printed on paper even though there are ebooks available (a slight decline from 66% in 2010).” Yet, even these slight changes “reveal the digital shift in children’s reading that has begun.” This discovery is clearly mirrored in the results of a National Literacy Trust survey published in May 2013, which found that for the first time children read more on digital devices than using print media. The development is coupled with parents’ worries about a decline in their children’s reading skills and enjoyment in reading. The NLT study findings contradict those made by Scholastic that reading on screens has a positive impact on the young readers’ enjoyment, although it appears that there is yet another area of blurred boundaries. This is the distinction between reading as a skill and reading as a way of engaging with stories. 

Uncertainty among adults about the implications of this ‘digital shift in reading’ causes apprehensions that go hand in hand with a strong sense of loss when it comes to print books. The BBC 2 broadcast Books: the Last Chapter in late 2011 sparked much debate and was labelled over-nostalgic when lamenting the disappearance of the print book. Many claimed this approach misses the ‘real issue’, the fact that the media we use for communication of our ideas define and shape our society. Theartdesk review states: “Obviously, the object that is the book has a diminished future but the words, the content, will always survive whatever the medium of delivery. […] It’s easy to disagree with McLuhan’s maxim that society is shaped more “by the nature of the media by which men communicate than the content of the communication”. But seeing a row of tablet readers being stared at on an underground train causes a jolt.”

So what many are lamenting appears to be the loss of an artefact they knew well and all the values and emotions attached to it. Yet reading itself has probably never been as wide-spread and manifold as it is today. However, the nature of reading is changing. One of these transformations is the link between the image and the written word that has opened up scope for a multitude of new literary forms. Another is the emergence of the ‘wreader’ who switches between reading and a writing fiction. And a third is highlighted by the immense increase in the number of book clubs, reading circles, literary societies, (fan) communities on- and offline revolving around stories in the widest sense. Writing and reading have become more immediate, and what Gertrude Stein said on the nature of print journalism in 1934 holds true for our communication of stories today: “The reader […]  craves the “feelings” associated with experiencing “happenings,” without which the reader would feel disjointed, out of time; “it is like the sun standing still…. [Y]ou cannot call a day a day if it is not a day if nothing that had been happening has happened on that day.” Therefore, the fact that reading is changing and becoming a more instantaneous, social and sociable experience through the affordances of digital media, it is creating the potential to enhance the impact of stories and their creators in our culture.

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