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“Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline” announced the headline at
the National Endowment for the Arts website on 8 July 2004. On that day the NEA published
a report entitled “Reading at
Risk”
(PDF), which outlined the findings of a 2002 survey of the reading habits of
17,000 Americans. The survey was also done in 1982 and 1992. The resulting trends?
According to the report, literary reading (i.e. novels, short stories, poetry, plays) has
declined by 10% since 1982, with 18-24 year olds declining the most – 28%! Or as the
preface to the report summarized it:

“…literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but
the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.”

I read through the report and although the analysis was a bit too alarmist in tone,
the numbers are indeed sobering. However the analysis of Internet and digital media
trends was very thin –
Grand Text Auto
did a good write-up of this particular aspect.

In this post I want to put the NEA report in a new light. A light that shines from the
21st century. I think the changes in reading habits that were reported are directly
related to digital media and the Internet. But, unlike the NEA, I don’t think the
Internet is a “culprit” or that it “competes” with reading (those are both words used on
page 30 of the report). No, what’s happening is that reading is changing, metamorphosing.
Reading is no longer just a paper-based, solitary activity that people do for leisure.
Reading in the 21st century is increasingly digital, social and creative.

Literary Types

Some background about me and where I’m coming from… I’m an English Lit major from
the early 90’s, so literacy is one of my core interests (along with web technology). One
thing I’ve always been uncomfortable with regarding literature is the snobbishness
exhibited by many Literary Types. It may be because there isn’t much consumer demand for
Literature and so literary types feel they have to defend their niche by emphasizing its
worth as an intellectual and cultural activity. In other words: sure studying literature
doesn’t make money, but it makes you more intelligent and a more rounded
individual. 

That’s the theory anyway and it’s backed up by my own experience as an English Lit
major. Back when I was at University, all my mates were doing Commerce or Computer
Science degrees. I was the only one doing a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree… and yes I was
the ‘artsy-fartsy’ one in my crowd. The standing joke amongst my friends was that I was
actually doing a BFA – a ‘Bachelor of Fuck All’. And in hindsight unfortunately it’s true
that my BA has counted for next to nothing in my career. Nevertheless I’m glad I did it
for the things I learned, plus I think it gave me an excellent grounding for analytical
work.

Blogs vs Books?

So yes, Literary Types do have a snobbish and elitist attitude. A recent example of
this is in the comments posted to a popular blog post over at 2blowhards.com. The post was
entitled Tacit Knowledge
— Writing a Book
and it attracted a huuuge number of comments. One of the
interesting sub-threads was ‘blogs vs books’ and here’s a selection of comments about
that:

1. “When I’ve been doing mostly surfing, I’ll start to miss the
coherence and focus and depth of a good book. On the other hand, lordy it’s fun to surf
the web, and it can be mighty nourishing in its own way.”

2. “Books are the meat, pototoes and vegetables of my internal
intellectual life. Reading blogs on the web is like coffee and dessert–ok for a treat
but not something I expect to nurture or sustain me.”

3. “I find blogs definitely dessert! But am an avid reader of almost any
mystery fiction.”

4. “There is a certain sense of satisfaction I get from reading a book
that I don’t get from keeping up with my favourite blogg, or even Salon.com for that
matter.”

5. “I prefer reading novels over reading blogs because I like dropping
into other worlds that have been crafted to make a whole, coherant sense. I do like
reading blogs, too. Mostly in the morning, before I write. They’re like the morning paper
or something.”

6. “With regard to the book versus blog debate. I found myself
analogising it with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as opposed to the three-minute pop song.
Pop songs are great – entertaining and mood settling – but they’ll never go anywhere near
the spiritual depths, the intellectual and emotional fulfilment, and sheer power, of
Beethoven.”

7. “Blogs are fine, a nice cup of coffee, but for sustained thought,
phrased in sentences that you’d read by choice, developed, extended, subjected to intense
self-scrutiny, wrought with a consciousness of what has preceded them in the culture –
for that you need a book. And for a book you need a mind. Life without books is just
televison upstairs.” (RM: that’s the pretentious pick of the bunch – and it was
written by a New Zealander no less!)

8. “I would agree that surfing the web and Blogging are very
entertaining. I would also agree blogging will never replace a well written book, though
Chat rooms can be very deep and help someone put concepts into words.”

9. “Re blogs vs books – One thing I’ve always noticed when working with
computers and children, is that children (especially young children) will nine times out
of ten respond far far better to a book than to a screen full of writing.”

Now… I’ll give you a moment to digest that, as frankly it is a bit rich! (ho ho,
another food pun!) The gist of it is that those people think of blogs – and text on a
computer screen in general, it seems – as fun and entertaining, but shallow and not
filling or nourishing. A 3-minute pop song, as opposed to a symphany. Whereas reading
proper paper books – according to these pundits – is an activity that is deep,
profound, spiritual, nourishing.

Two-Way Literacy

What all those people are missing is that books aren’t necessarily an object you
consume. Electronic text – including blogs and ebooks – enables a true two-way reading
experience. Ebooks for example often have exactly the same words as a paper book – but
you can do so much more with them. Note that in the previous sentence I used the word
“you” (as in the reader) and “do” (as in produce something). With a paper book you can
scribble in the margins and make some notes of your own, I suppose. But there’s not a
whole lot else you can actively contribute to the reading process, because a paper book
is an object that is pretty much static. An Ebook, on the other hand, is dynamic
you can cut and paste text, add notations, re-format it, search it, electronically send
it to your mate on the other side of the world, converse with other people reading the
same text, contribute to the story, and many many other creative acts that we haven’t
even discovered yet. 

A word on the last comment I quoted from 2blowhards – about children responding better to books than
“to a screen full of writing”. I agree that books are very important for children – my
own daughter (who is going on 3) loves it when we read books together. But she’s just as
keen on multimedia on the computer, because she can interact with it, make choices,
create things. I’d suggest that this future generation will want to have their cake and
eat it too – they’ll want books, but in a format more suited to creativity and 2-way
communication.

New Generation of Readers

To return to the NEA ‘Reading at Risk’ report. While it is disturbing that reading is
apparently declining, there is a new kind of literacy that I believe is rising to
take its place. It’s like media
literacy
, but there’s more to it as well… The new generation of readers aren’t content
to be passive consumers of books. They want to be able to interact and communicate with
words and other media. The NEA report actually has a little clue that helps confirm this
trend: it states that creative writing has increased over the last 20 years
(almost the only thing that did increase!).

I’ve noted before on
this blog that Generation Y is very community-oriented. They use media to form social
bonds and reading books doesn’t necessarily meet those needs. Maybe that explains the 28%
drop in readership among 18-24 year olds.

Two-way media such as blogs and ebooks are the future of reading, because literacy is
no longer a one-way consumer culture of ‘we write, you read’. Creativity is half the
equation now and the new generation want reading books to be a social and productive
activity. Digital media and the Internet are the enablers of this new kind of read/write
literacy.