All on the same page

A new essay collection suggests technology will enhance book culture, not kill it
August 8, 2012

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 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.

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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.

But books have always been social instruments, even for the most private reader. As the scholar Paul Armstrong put it, “Reading has a social, political dimension because we make sense of texts by forming hypotheses about meaning that emerge from the assumptions and conventions we bring from our other experiences with literature and life.” From the ways you find a book—at a library, or via a list devised by a committee of experts—to the ways you evaluate and discuss it—in a classroom, or over beers with friends—you’re engaging in social processes that affect the act of reading.

These social factors bring us right to the doorstep of the Internet age. While Bauerlein and others see the digital realm and the printed word as antagonists, Lang and company argue for the “importance of tracing the historical continuities that emerge between [contemporary] reading practices and those of previous eras.” Those contemporary practices incorporate the digital, but are firmly rooted in the everyday world.

Two essays in the collection, taken together, explore these affinities between the virtual and the mundane, which will seem wholly unremarkable to anyone who’s grown accustomed to life in the past decade. In “Producing Meaning through Interaction,” Joan Bessman Taylor reports on the five years she spent attending book clubs in the Midwest, gathering data on “the often elusive reading practices of real rather than imagined, implied, or ideal readers.” Real readers choose books based on “discussability,” and spend their time “discussing the ways the book could have been different, talking about what members would have preferred to have had included.” Taylor calls this “the creation of the ideal text,” meaning that book-clubbers, through discussion and reflection, add meaning and context that transform the existing text into something new. It’s the same sort of cultural re-mixing that backgrounds 90 percent of the content on the Internet.

Julian Pinder treads similar ground in “Online Literary Communities,” an essay analyzing LibraryThing, a website that, according to its tagline, “connects people based on the books they share.” If real-world book clubs focus on the creation of the ideal text, LibraryThing facilitates the creation of the ideal reading list. The site is a social network on which readers create profiles based around books they’ve read. The network connects users based on shared tastes, and also provides an avenue for discussion and amateur book reviewing.

Though some might see LibraryThing as an example of the triumph of participatory culture over stodgy institutional gatekeepers, the site is heavily influenced by the evaluative and discursive structures that preceded it. Indeed, Pinder notes that the site “suggests the potential for new and productive connections to be forged between” existing institutions and participatory culture. That some users might ignore anything those institutions have to say is irrelevant. The Internet can’t hit the reset button on centuries-long conversations.

Many essays in From Codex to Hypertext attempt to draw similar connections between digital and print reading cultures. They show that the “decline and fall” developments decried by Bauerlein and others are just the latest versions of longstanding practices.

Take David Wright’s essay, “Literary Taste and List Culture in a Time of ‘Endless Choice,’” which examines the phenomenon of user-generated best-of lists—the sort you’d find on Amazon, for instance—in comparison with the sorts of “best books” lists compiled in previous eras. Wright indirectly but substantially addresses the diminution of official critical authority that so worries certain pundits. If readers are free to create and disseminate their own best-of lists, then who’s going to care about the judgments of professional critics and other experts?

The creation of a new evaluative metric, though, does not automatically mean the destruction of its predecessors. Wright cites early examples of lists of important books as “an attempt to manage the emergent mass literate population of the late 19th century, and to mark the territory of the already literate cultural elite.” Eventually, additional “cultural intermediaries” emerged to tell society which books are important: academics, reviewers, prize committees, publishers, booksellers. The digital age hasn’t eclipsed these intermediaries’ power, but Wright argues that it has given readers a greater say in the decisions.

Lists of the “most important” books—whether generated by a Facebook community, the Modern Library, or the editors of a magazine—are about the formation of the canon, the texts that are socially ordained as important, to be taught in schools and reissued in Penguin Classics editions. As Wright and others show, the old guard is already de facto represented in online book culture. But to the extent those critics who are inherently disgusted by digital technology continue to see the relationship between digital culture and book culture as antagonistic, they forfeit the opportunity to argue for their values in this new space. What puzzles me about the skeptics who say book culture won’t survive the digital revolution is that they posit the infinite ability of technology to evolve new ways to distract and debase us, but leave no room for technology to advance in ways that artfully mimic and improve upon previous mediums—becoming more human-friendly, more accessible, and more desirable in the process. Why can’t the classics be redeemed by new technology, rather than trampled by it?

The year after I first heard Bauerlein’s “Milton vs. Myspace” lecture in 2006, Amazon released the Kindle. Today, The Dumbest Generation is currently on sale at the Kindle store. And Milton’s Paradise Lost is now available for free via Apple’s iBooks store, where it currently enjoys a 3.5-star user rating (on a five-star scale). Myspace, meanwhile, has become a ghost town. Online straw men come and go. Epic poetry abides.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.