Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Decline of Reading: An Alternative View

Writing in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Leah Price questions the proposition put forth by the NEA and others that reading is on the decline:

Last year, the N.E.A. responded to the supposed reading crisis with the Big Read, a campaign that offered communities a choice of book to read together. Predictably, one of the selections was Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” I’m not sure what moved me to reread the novel last month: maybe the dystopian N.E.A. report, maybe the release of the Kindle. (Is Amazon suggesting that the books of the world can now go up in flames?) Something puzzled me this time, though: what exactly are Bradbury’s villains trying to get rid of? Sometimes it’s a material object — bound pages get burned without ever being read. At other times, it seems to be high culture, oral as much as written. In a world full of actors “who haven’t acted Pirandello or Shaw or Shakespeare for years,” one character can tell another, “It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books.” Writing in the same decade as Marshall McLuhan, Bradbury never seems certain whether his topic is the medium or the message.

The N.E.A. perpetuates the confusion about what’s “at risk.” Great literature (as opposed to pulp fiction)? Pleasure reading (as opposed to reading to grub grades or grub money)? The reading of books (as opposed to newspaper Web sites, mail-order catalogs and N.E.A. reports)? Reading mediated by some surface that predates the LCD — books, scrolls, tombstones? Bafflingly, the N.E.A.’s time-use charts classify “e-mailing” and “surfing Web sites” as competitors to reading, not subsets of it. Bradbury’s logic was even less consistent: in the future, he predicts, the “rule book” will forbid reading.

The one hypothesis that neither “Fahrenheit 451” nor “To Read or Not to Read” supports is that reading itself stands in any danger. Although Bradbury equates totalitarianism with book burning, his novel never explains how a surveillance state could function without record-keeping. (Every historian knows that police states generate the juiciest archives.) When the hero goes on the lam after being caught reading “Dover Beach,” the alert broadcast on the “televisor” takes an alphabetical form: “‘Montag,’ the TV set said, and lit up. ‘M-O-N-T-A-G.’ The name was spelled out by a voice.” Bradbury can imagine a world without books, but not without bookkeeping. The file, the list, the label, the memo: these are the genres that will keep reading alive. Whatever happens to the novel, we’ll always need a rule book.

While I think Professor Price offers some valid criticisms of the reading in decline thesis, she does miss one important point. The rise of the Internet is changing not just what people read, but how they read and indeed how they think. There is a stark difference between reading as a purely practical function designed to facilitate record-keeping and reading in order to educate oneself and develop one's critical faculties. Practical literacy and critical thinking skills are two distinct phenomena. Our society will always have the former; we sorely need the latter as well.


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