Mark Bauerlein, an english professor at Emory University and the author of the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study “Reading at Risk,” tells a story about an Apple Store sales display that convinced him the digital generation was in open revolt against the printed book. I first heard the lecture, called “Milton vs. Myspace: The Menace of Screens,” as a 22-year-old English major in a lecture hall full of other young readers, but Bauerlein didn’t say whether he found our youth encouraging or just ironic. He was there to tell us about the battle for our souls, and as evidence cited the Apple Store display, which had set MacBook computers alongside classics of literature and concluded that the Apple products were “The only books you’ll need.”
Bauerlein revisits the story, at length, in his book The Dumbest Generation, arguing that Apple was trying to set up a “zero sum game” with books on one side and digital technologies on the other. He concludes: “To replace the book with the screen is to remove a 2,500-year-old cornerstone of civilization and insert an altogether dissimilar building block.” First the MacBook, then the barbarians, and pretty soon our citadels have crumbled and society lies in ruins.
Is reading actually at risk? Bauerlein’s NEA study (which focused specifically on literary reading) is thorough and scientific. I wouldn’t deny its findings any more than I’d deny climate change. But since his is a study of human minds rather than immutable natural forces, there are still many reasons for hope. Certainly the written word isn’t disappearing—on the contrary, it seems there are more texts freely available now than ever. And while people claim that the quality of written information is declining—as are readers’ attention spans—these claims are usually decontextualized, and hard to evaluate on their merits.
At base, I think critics like Bauerlein worry that technology will change the way people relate to books: how they find them, discuss them, use them, and judge them. Hyperliteracy is a status symbol, in a way, and you can understand why the hyperliterate worry that Twitter and MacBooks and other arriviste innovations threaten to displace books from their longtime position at the center of educated society. The anti-digital argument is a cultural argument, and it’s not clear what the doomsayers fear more: The idea of books being replaced by other aspects of digital culture, or the idea of books being subsumed by digital culture—of unequal works sharing the same plane.
From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, a new academic anthology edited by Anouk Lang, is a dense and eclectic attempt to address these modern-day changes in textual culture. The volume has little to say about what reading means to individuals and society—how literacy helps build economies, for example. Instead, it looks dispassionately at the movement of books through society—how books are found, purchased, shared, discussed, and evaluated, and how those habits have evolved.
Lang’s book—which, it must be said, is not intended for the casual reader—is heavily influenced by modern “reception studies,” an academic field that analyzes readers’ reactions to and interactions with texts. In essence, Lang and her contributors are interested in reading as a social practice. Not only do the essayists consider the inner workings of small-town book clubs to be as worthy of study as Amazon.com recommendation algorithms, they insist that understanding the interplay between the digital and the physical realms is essential to an accurate and holistic picture of the contemporary reader.
For those who see reading in romantic terms, From Codex to Hypertext might feel like encountering an anthropological treatise on one’s own tribe. This will likely alienate non-academic readers, and it might even offend them, much like Lord Byron might have blanched upon hearing love described in strictly biological terms. But this detachment makes the book valuable, if not always readable.
People don’t generally think of reading as a communal experience. Consider, for example, the stock mental imagery associated with reading: a child in bed, reading by flashlight; a scholar holed up in his garret. People have very personal relationships to printed books—far more so, I’d bet, than with any other form of media—which is perhaps why the reaction to their possible disappearance gets so heated. It’s also an argument for why they will persevere.