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The Future of the Humanities: Reading

3 February 2016

From Pacific Standard:

Reading always seems to be in crisis. Two and half millennia ago, Socrates inveighed against the written word because it undermined memory and confused data with wisdom. When the codex—the bound book—appeared, some conservative Romans almost certainly went around complaining: “What was wrong with scrolls? They were good enough for Horace and Cicero.” Gutenberg’s press gradually undercut the market for illuminated manuscripts. Aldus Manutius, inventor of the pocket-sized book, rendered huge folios a specialty item.

. . . .

 By the late 19th and early 20th century, when public education made basic literacy available to everyone, the Western world couldn’t get enough printed matter. Andrew Carnegie financed the construction of hundreds of city libraries. Newsstands resembled caves of wonder, overflowing with magazines and serial fiction for every taste. This was the heyday of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, of The Secret Garden and The Thirty-Nine Steps, of The War of the Worlds and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Escapist reading had never been better.

. . . .

Of course, scolds regularly complained—then as now—that people were just drugging themselves with trash, that bad books were driving out good, that young people were being corrupted by pulp fiction when they should be devoting their days and nights to Plato and Shakespeare. Civilization was obviously being dumbed down, if not entirely destroyed. Consequently, educators and fast-talking salesmen were soon promulgating the virtues of spending 15 minutes a day with the Harvard Classics or, a little later, of investing large sums in the Great Books of the Western World.

Today, many people similarly bluster that digital books and our increasingly screen-based culture herald the end of serious reading. This is nonsense. There are consequences, and sometimes drawbacks, to all new technologies, but human beings can’t live without stories and poems.

. . . .

Through social media, the young woman of today who discovers Sylvia Plath can quickly share her excitement with friends around the world. She might leave a comment about Ariel or The Bell Jar on Goodreads, or join an online discussion group, or post links to sites devoted to the poet’s work and memory. Her enthusiasm might lead a dozen or a thousand more people to Plath.

That’s just one advantage of our screen-based culture. Older and half-forgotten titles are now readily available through Project Gutenberg and its ilk. Entire libraries can be carried in your pocket. Digitized texts can be easily and quickly searched, or their font size enlarged for aging eyes.

Nonetheless, countering these real benefits are various pitfalls. Computers encourage skimming instead of focused attention and solitary engagement with a book’s words and ideas. The buzzing Internet hive fosters meaningless chatter as well as meaningful dialog. Screens themselves impose a factitious homogeneity: James Bond looks like Jane Austen and a smartphone blurs the difference in size between the Giant Bible of Mainz and a tiny miniature book.

Above all, no digital facsimile can ever replicate the mana, the glamour of a physical artifact.

Link to the rest at Pacific Standard

For those who, like PG, aren’t familiar with mana, the word originates in Tonga and means a generalized supernatural force or power that can be concentrated in objects or people.

With all the snow PG has shoveled over the past several days, he’s pretty much into physical forces and powers at the moment. Looking around his office, he sees what Mrs. PG regards as entirely too many objects, but doesn’t sense mana emanating from any of them.

Books in General

9 Comments to “The Future of the Humanities: Reading”

  1. Computers encourage skimming instead of focused attention and solitary engagement with a book’s words and ideas.

    No. I admit I skim work emails (sometimes this bites me), but primarily because I am conditioned to expect them not to contain any information; it turns out a lot of reporters and editors are terrible at expository writing. I am amazed at how little communication happens here 😛

    But when I know there *will* be information, and the thing I’m reading is well written? I will stay with it and focus on it. It’s no different from a book or a print magazine or newspaper. I’ll skim a book when it has artless info dumps and the parts that Elmore Leonard observed that “readers will skip.” I’ll give a book my whole attention when it’s well written.

    Before computers get the blame for skimming, I want to see the accusers account for page design: leading, line length, wall of text, white text on black background, tiny font sizes, etc. Those defects are just as problematic with a print book; I don’t think the medium is the culprit here.

    Fortunately, a lot of templates offered to bloggers and websites address these design issues. Perhaps templates compatible with Amazon/Apple/BN will be made for ebooks, too.

    Screens themselves impose a factitious homogeneity: James Bond looks like Jane Austen and a smartphone blurs the difference in size between the Giant Bible of Mainz and a tiny miniature book.

    For the first part, it’s a question of whether the publisher bothers to make their ebook attractive and distinctive. Fleurons? Chapter headings? The books don’t have to look alike, I agree.

    For the second part, I don’t get the complaint. Primary objective: Text is to be read so it must be a size that is readable. E-books are working as they should. As for the “tiny miniature book”, those are just props for She-Ra’s castle, especially if Glimmer needs a spellbook. Well, that’s what I used them for 🙂

    If the text isn’t meant to be read, then it’s just a display piece. Why worry?

    Today, many people similarly bluster that digital books and our increasingly screen-based culture herald the end of serious reading. This is nonsense.

    Yep!

  2. I have no problem ‘getting into’ a good read on my computer. Though that’s because I’ve set the other distractions to ‘off’. No little voice or beep saying ‘you’ve got mail!’, no other screens open to beg for attention (a thesaurus and dictionary are parked and ready to pop up if I need them, but that’s more for writing than reading.)

    When reading something you’re finding ‘boring’ your mind starts looking for something to save it from the bore — thus the distractions become more ‘interesting’ …

  3. I think there is something to the idea that technology has decreased attention spans, and I find I need to consistently remind myself to read a full page of text on a website.

    However I would also say that ereaders like Kindles, Nooks, and the like don’t foster the same skimming tendencies. I think people adapt their reading styles based on expectations. Certainly ebooks and more readily available (see what I did there?) audio books are changing literature the same way that the printing press did, and I look forward to seeing the results in future generations.

    It also makes me wonder what sorts of books we might call “trash” that end up being taught in literature classes in a hundred years. Any votes?

    • I think there is something to the idea that technology has decreased attention spans, and I find I need to consistently remind myself to read a full page of text on a website.

      I think it’s more related to the skimmable nature of the majority of what’s published online than it is attention spans. Buzzfeed, Gawker, HuffPo, Cracked . . . I think it’s less about technology/digital/online than it is what those sites are doing. It’s all listicles and gifs that pass for “content” more so than communication. They often seem to exist more to attract clicks than to engage readers. Even news websites — heck, news in general — seems to move in that direction.

      There’s longform out there worth diving into, but you have to look for it. Some of the tech sites like Engadget sometimes feature round ups of actual articles that begin with a thesis and seem to attempt to say something that can’t be summarized by a handful of gifs.

      I think ereaders don’t foster the same skimming tendencies because they’re about different reading. One doesn’t tend to read listicles on Kindle, for example; that’s where one buys novels and short stories.

      Guessing at lit classes is always so hard. My list for 100 years from now would start with King, Gaiman, Rowling, and Pratchett. Not that any would currently be called “trash,” mind you. I also think there will be other authors discussed more for how they changed the industry or the industry changed around them than for their actual work. In 100 years, the past ten will likely be seen as the start of a seismic shift that’s going to continue to ripple for the next 100.

  4. “As for the “tiny miniature book”, those are just props for She-Ra’s castle, especially if Glimmer needs a spellbook. Well, that’s what I used them for :)”

    Just on that alone, I hope someday can have a beer/tea. What imagination.

  5. “a generalized supernatural force or power that can be concentrated in objects or people”

    Well, it may not be supernatural, but I think that few objects are so brimming with mana as the tablets and other modern devices on which many of us do our reading.

  6. Computers encourage skimming instead of focused attention and solitary engagement with a book’s words and ideas.

    Sounds like a garden variety scold.

  7. I skim books as well. If something has low information content I don’t want to waste my time – this applies to books as well as screen content.

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