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.