The Digital Critique of “To Read or Not To Read”

More healthy debate about the NEA’s jeremiad To Read or Not To Read is happening on the Institute for the Future of the Book’s blog. Let me try to summarize my critique of the NEA report, and you should be sure to read the whole report so as not to be swiftly criticized by the evidently touchy authors and their supporters.

I have no doubt that book reading is declining. My offense at the report has to do with the second-class status of the digital realm throughout. Sunil Iyengar, the Director of Research & Analysis for the NEA states on p. 23 of the report:

Unless “book-reading” is specifically mentioned, study results on voluntary reading should be taken as referencing all varieties of leisure reading (e.g., magazines, newspapers, online reading), and not books alone. [my emphasis]

But the rest of the report makes it almost impossible to see how “online reading” was actually included as “voluntary reading” and lauded as such. While there are indeed charts about “book reading,” most charts are at best ambiguous about what “reading” means and at worst seem to make the online world devoid of words. For example, Table 3E, on p. 40, lists the “Weekly Average Hours and/or Minutes Spent on Various Activities by American Children, 2002-3.” But bizarrely “computer activities” (2:45) are distinct from “reading” (1:17), as if no reading occurred during those online hours.

More generally—and this is what I think many of us in the digital humanities are reacting to—the report is suffused with the nostalgic view of armchair leisure book reading (a nostalgia I share, by the way, and indeed deeply yearn for as an overstretched father of young children with a very busy day job). The report thus belittles the work of all of us trying to move serious reading and scholarship where it will surely go in the coming decades—online. As a historian, it reminds me of the early modern disparagements of writing and reading in the vernacular, back when only Latin would do for “serious” study and scholarship.

The double standard for digital reading versus paper reading can be seen in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Mark Bauerlein. Bauerlein’s retort to Matt Kirschenbaum is to look at “what eye-tracking technology reveals about how users scan Web pages.” I assume his point is that these studies reveal the ADHD that we “votaries of online and screen reading” have, skimming and grazing rather than “really” reading. But can you imagine what would be revealed in eye tracking studies of readers of newspapers and magazines? Ad agencies have long known—indeed, it is the first principle of graphic design in advertising—that most pages are glanced at for mere seconds or even a fraction of a second, not “read.” (The report, sensing this potential criticism and keeping to its theme, emphasizes on p. 51 that teenagers are more likely to “skim” the “news sections.”)

But what of books? I’m sure I’m not the only academic who would like to strap eye trackers onto the heads of the book prize committees for professional academic organizations, who are supposed to read dozens or hundreds of books in short order—but surely skim (or worse). Matt Kirschenbaum and many others are simply making what, upon reflection, is a rather commonsensical point: that “reading” has always included multiple styles, including deep linear styles and more flighty ones. As Roy Rosenzweig and I point out in our book Digital History, we academics should be finding ways to encourage long-form reading on the screen (where all reading will ultimately head anyway) rather than, in our bookish nostalgia, ceding the medium to web usability specialists who encourage blurb writing for short attention spans.

Ultimately, To Read or Not To Read seems strangely dated in 2008. On its pages it remains obsessed with TV just at the point when kids’ leisure time pursuits are moving swiftly online. In an age when an “academic blog” is no longer an oxymoron, the report inexplicably mentions “blogs”—the source of so much online reading and writing and now even part of so many classrooms—on a single page out of 98, and only to dismiss them as pseudo-reading and writing in a worn critique that resorts to quoting from Sven Birkerts’ early-Web Gutenberg Elegies (1994). The report also oddly dismisses the exponential rise in online newspaper readership while lamenting the 2 or 3 percent yearly decline in paper “subscribers.”

After reading the civics portion of the report (pp. 86-92), which particularly emphasizes the importance of book reading (see pp. 88-89), a question came to mind: might email, IM, texting, social networking and other online pursuits enhance “civic engagement” and understanding more than reading a good thick policy treatise? The smartphone-bearing, Facebook-using teenagers currently working (often virtually) on the presidential primaries in the United States have little time for leisure reading, and a good number of them are probably not “voluntary readers” of the Platonic sort envisioned in To Read or Not To Read. But they are learning—and doing, and reading—much more in the digital realm than this myopic report can conceive.


Matt K. says:

Nice, balanced post Dan.

Unfortunately, some of what’s “between the lines” in the official report seeps out in other venues. One of its report’s architects, for example, is rather fond of the phrase “digital diversions,” which he uses in both personal correspondence and elsewhere:

For my first-day-of-class eye-opener in my tech-in-libraries class, I brought in a translation of good old Trithemius, De laude scriptorum.

Same stuff, different day. I’ve been watching this kind of smear campaign (and bluntly, that’s what it IS) for a decade. Nothing’s changed about the smear — and the smear hasn’t stopped behavior changes. I’m starting to ignore it, honestly.

Alexis says:

I especially like this quote in the abstract

Advanced readers accrue personal, professional, and social advantages. Deficient readers run higher risks of failure in all three areas.

* Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.

“This report shows striking statistical links between reading, advanced reading skills, and other individual and social benefits,” said Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research and Analysis. “To Read or Not to Read compels us to consider more carefully how we spend our time, since those choices affect us individually and collectively.”

I can only assume this to mean the authors and director of NEA Research believe that reading causes civic engagement. I’ll have to read the whole thing, but – damn – I’m an ignorant SOB and even I know that correlation does not equal causation.

Alexis says:

Oops, it didn’t include my ellipses (I snipped out two bullet points before the one I included above).

Matt K. says:

The report does state that it’s not positing causal relations between different data and trends. At the same time, it’s pretty obvious that its audience–the media especially–is expected to draw just those kind of conclusions.

Kristine says:

It seems like academia looks down on reading online, but I bet the same people who read literature are also reading valuable sites online. The populations aren’t mutually exclusive.
About the correlation b/w reading and civic engagement, I’d say that online is one of the key places people go to engage in civics, whether it’s researching volunteer opportunities or reading political commentary. Reading an article about Obama, then blogging it or forwarding it to friends is how we share ideas in this modern age, and what is reading for but to spread ideas in some form?

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