Posted by: glundeen | December 27, 2007

Twilight of the Books?

Caleb Crain’s article in the New Yorker raises a lot of interesting questions about the changing nature of literacy. Are we looking at major literacy declines right under our noses? The article is full of alarming stats, as well as food for thought about the nature of reading and its importance in human evolution.

To quote the New Yorker article: “Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be explained but the fact that we read at all. ‘The act of reading is not natural,’ Maryanne Wolf writes in Proust and the Squid, an account of the history and biology of reading. Humans started reading far too recently for any of our genes to code for it specifically. We can do it only because the brain’s plasticity enables the repurposing of circuitry that originally evolved for other tasks—distinguishing at a glance a garter snake from a haricot vert, say.”

I can’t imagine a life without reading. I pray I never go blind, never lose the wondrous ability to read so deeply engrained in me. It feels as natural as breathing, as natural as interpreting the world around me, and yet it’s a relatively recent development in human evolution. And we’re still on a breakneck pace, all things considered, especially if Moore’s Law holds up a while longer. Our lifetimes may see an end to traditional reading and the rise of direct upload to our minds, which may or may not be cybernetically enhanced. Take the future possibilities in any way you like, as far as your imagination will take you, but regardless of your whimsies it’s clear that we as human beings are at a transition point with the way we get our information, the way we process it, and what it all means to our lives.

People are reading books less and less, however, and this fact must be considered by anyone working in a library, especially a public institution. Does this make libraries any less important? Perhaps the decline of popular reading makes the public library even more important, not just as a literacy advocate but as a community repository.

The kids I see coming into the library seem not to even notice the books we have, unless they’re put out by Marvel and DC. I’m as unabashed a comics fan as you’ll find, the kind who visits the local comic shop just about every week to check out the new titles, but this distresses me somehow. Comics cannot be all you read. An undeniable difference exists between words on white (or any other color) paper and words accompanied by pictures. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times, as comics have a lot more in common with the pacing of movies and television, as an almost seamless transition from one to the other becomes more and more commonplace.  Is this a part of the changing definition of reading?

But what happened to words for their own sake? Perhaps we will experience an upswing in reading’s popularity, a backlash against television. Right now, I don’t see our culture doing that.

The terror every writer faces lies in staring at a blank page. We all know the feeling. Has that terror of words on a page now transferred to reading? Or is it that, truth be told, the majority of human beings (let alone Americans) only do the bare minimum of reading that they must in order to survive and leave it at that? Are we losing our love of reading, or was it never that strong in the first place?

One last quote from Crain’s article: “…there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it…Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence.”

The question we should be asking isn’t “What is the future of the book?” but “What is our future?”

To bastardize the Mighty Mos Def, “the book will simply amaze you, craze you, pay you, do whatever you say do, but man it can’t save you.” It’s hard to push the benefits of reading on non-readers of all ages, but everyone should understand the value – no, the necessity – of independent thought.



  1. Excellent post. As both comics geek and literature scholar, I fully grasp your expressed worries, and have considered them often. However, the tiny optimist in me clings to two things. First, I often think that a past which contained a widespread culture of literacy is more myth than fact (and I debate this point with myself, and am still uncertain which of the two I believe in more). Since the rise of mass-produced printed books in the 18th century, those like us who love reading literature have been complaining about people NOT doing so, and/or complaining about the material people did read. This makes me hope that, perhaps, maybe people haven’t stopped reading literature, but instead around the same percentage of people who cared about it back then still care about it now, and proportionally little has changed. Maybe since it is something we value so much, we don’t understand why the trend hasn’t grown. This is what I try to believe on my good days, anyway; although, the modern decline of a “standard” education makes the bad days equal in number to the good. Secondly, I don’t think we have to fear cyber-absorbing over reading, at least not yet. If Marx got anything right, it was that we like to own things, we like to hold things. It is the same reason radio exists post-television, and why the “digital-book” explosion that has been forwarned for the past two decades hasn’t come. Part of the joy of literature is beyond the words themseleves – it is in the act of reading: the smell of the printed page, the voluntary act of sitting and choosing to hold this thing in our hands and read. Sure, I could sit in front of a screen and read Catcher in the Rye, or Ulysses, but I consider my ragged, heavily marked copies of each to be among my most invaluable possessions. As long as it remains primarily a joy, and not a necessity, it isn’t in danger of being supplanted by the microchip – and that is why it is such a necessity. Just my two hopeful cents – and if you ask me tomorrow I might disagree with all this completely.

  2. Excellent points, and thanks for being my first commenter. You may be right, and we readers have a way of transferring our love of reading to others. I remember the shock in high school of seeing a friend of mine’s dad rip out a page from a book of Leonard Cohen poetry to scrawl a phone number down. More people are literate now than ever before, truth be told, at least in a functional way.

    I go back and forth as well, but the decline in a “standard” education that you mentioned has a lot to do with it. Parents aren’t out there in the library or at home teaching their kids about the value of books – there’s a lot more concern about a DVD. It’s not about the book, it’s about the process.

    It’ll be a long time before we jettison the tactile, if ever. Just look at comics. How much more pleasurable is it reading your weekly Wednesday comics in your hands versus digital comics? Something about the computing experience really obscures that mind-blowing awesomeness of “someone had to draw all this!” that the best comics have. Even the Internet’s becoming more tactile – look at the iPhone.

    I didn’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I kind of look forward to a sci-fi future of nanotechnology, mind uploading and humanity’s continued bizarre evolution. Who knows how microchips and such would affect the brain – would it be analagous to the brain activity contrast of reading vs. watching TV, or is it going to be something else entirely?

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