Learning to Read All Over Again

Lutz Koepnick

Learning to Read All Over Again
Born to be wired? Second graders using a Kindle in Milton, Mass., 2013. (Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

What produces better students – reading in print or reading on-line? The answer is both.

In the 1990s, many intellectuals and educators worried deeply about the presumed “visual turn” of contemporary culture. They feared images would completely replace text, and that we might loose our ability to read critically and write with proficiency. The last decade has proven many of these concerns unwarranted. No age has seen more reading and writing than the era of text messaging, social networking, smart phones, ubiquitous computing, and restless live tickers on ambient television screens. And yet, new fears have superseded previous ones.

Some argue that to produce text on the move, with the help of handheld electronic gadgets, makes a mockery of the true art of writing and inevitably leads to widespread dyslexia. Others fear that a culture of omnipresent media, of always “being on,” corrodes the possibility of focused attention and promotes agitated, albeit vacuous, forms of multitasking. In short, it obliterates what good reading is all about.

With many good reasons, educators at all levels of instruction frequently chime into this more recent swan song for reading, eagerly pointing at various symptoms of the decline of traditional reading. College students no longer consult library books or journal collections to carry out research, but expect on-line delivery systems to put the world of knowledge—in searchable format—at their fingertips. Young adults know how to process a myriad of text messages a day, yet find no pleasure in following the arc of a novel, let alone the intricacy of a well-developed written argument. Even kindergarteners today need touch screens to practice their first letters and are no longer invited to experience the sheer materiality of a book—the feel of its pages, the imprint of letters on paper, the traces of use and age, the disruptive and titillating sensation of turning a book from one page to another.

While educators of centuries past had their own worries about the future of reading, they tended to envision ideal reading as a highly spiritual, solitary, silent, and stationary communion with a text. Images from different ages and cultures present the perfect reader as an individual slightly hunched over a book, tucked into an interior’s corner or under the shelter of a tree, his or her gaze fully absorbed into what eludes our own view. In many of these older images, the reader’s hand serves as a curious site of transcendence. It holds the physical book firmly, and in doing so, allows the mind to access a self-contained and disembodied universe of thought, reflection, and imagination. In today’s parlance, we would call this meeting of hand and book an interface.

Today, it is hard to find any image that idealizes solitary and stationary reading. Reading today happens on the fly, as we are in motion. It is about sharing and networking rather than exploring utterly intimate and private spaces. It exists as one of many other media activities that we may carry out on one of various devices at once. And it is defined not by unsettling travels into the world of the spirit, but by our ability to process information efficiently and solve problems effectively as they come along, second after second.

Similar to most other debates about the cultural impact of digital innovations, the majority of conversations about the transformation of reading in the digital age are deeply Manichean in nature. Today’s culture of computing either liberates us from all possible strictures of the past, democratizes access, and opens up unknown opportunities — or it flattens important meanings and values, produces highly distracted users, and disintegrates essential structures of sociability. While presumed technophobes continue to battle with apparent technophiles and utter enthusiasm clashes with profound skepticism, participants in today’s debate often feel pressed to assume positions as if our only options were either to go fully digital or to stay entirely analogue. It is as if similar debates about the impact of technology on cultural practices had not occurred, whether it was about the distribution of paperbacks in the nineteenth century, the invention of the telephone, or the rise of cinema.

Although this divide might make for good arguments, its Manicheanism holds us back from appreciating a more nuanced assessment of the gains and losses, the continuities and discontinuities associated with the rise of new media and computer-based reading practices. It tends to present technological hardware as being in complete control over what we do with certain media, and it has little patience for ambivalence and multiplicity, the productive messiness that might ensue when historical revolutions change some, but not all, parameters of our existence.

In this new culture of information overload and electronic mobility, the competition for enabling and maintaining reader attention may become one of the century’s primary battlegrounds. Amid ambient digital screens and seemingly unlimited streams of texts and images, we face the question of what truly controls our ability to focus—what succeeds in controlling our awareness, in managing how we dedicate time to certain subjects while ignoring others, and thereby manipulates our sense of recall, anticipation, and presence.

Our ability to read well, to process and take pleasure in text will certainly play a significant part in the battle for attention. Reading may indeed no longer be what it once used to be. What we need to do, however, is to reflect thoroughly on how computing has changed or added to the concept of reading and its economy of attention before we propose viable perspectives about what to do about the rivalry between words on screens and words on paper.

You do not have to be a media determinist to see how reading conventional books is different from text on screen. And it would be foolish to deny that different media platforms enable different practices and temporalities of reading. Although we might at first think of the pages of a book as a window to the world generated by the text, as a transparent frame effectively transporting us into a different and imaginary time and place, such metaphors largely fail to address how books have historically managed to grasp a reader’s mind and attention. A book’s page can be a self-effacing looking glass onto a different order of things, but much depends on the reader and the context. Readers may find themselves fully immersed in what the letters on paper communicate to them, but at the same time they experience the physical turning of the page, the quality of the paper, or the material properties of the cover as something that deeply contributes to how they hold on to the book and allow it to move them forward in time.

A book’s physical properties matter to our act of reading. They play a considerable role in seizing our attention and inviting us to enter a curious space of temporal negotiation: a space in which our own sense of time, a book’s story time, and the time it might take to physically read its letters and sentences in their prearranged order meet and take hold of each other. Books invite us to get lost, to lose ourselves within their pages, precisely because they provide something steady and permanent, as something we can touch as much as it can touch upon us.

By contrast, the “window and frame” metaphor is much more appropriate to describe reading text on a screen than in a printed book. Screens and reading software encourage us to scroll across, zoom in and out, travel across, scan and skip text similar to the way in which viewers might use a window to peruse distant realities at their own will. Unlike the printed word, digital text has no real existence or permanence unless users chose to endow it with such. Digital text allows vast possibilities of non-linear appropriation, whether we use search functions, follow embedded hyper-links, or in fact start to reassemble its form or order with the help of different software functions. Digital reading is closer to roaming. It empowers readers to meet a text on their own temporal terms and immerse themselves in their own ability to manipulate what appears in front of them rather than in the world represented by the words. Existing in some strange nowhere land, text on screen not only asks us to find or plod a way, but find or plod our way to define what we want to count as text in the first place.

The most important point, however, is not to develop an unbending claim that traditional books necessarily produce one kind of reader, while digital devices necessarily produce another. Rather, educators need to stress the value of print and digital reading in equal measure: that both the absorption of print readers and the willfulness of digital readers are necessary to face the challenges of an increasingly connected world. And there is no reason to think that we can only do one at the deliberate expense of the other. What we need are readers able to get lost in books as much as readers able to maneuver extended cartographies of words; readers who know how to follow narrative or argumentative arcs and readers who understand how to scan texts quickly, search for relevant information, and isolate central ideas from ornamental baggage; readers touched by the words on a page and readers eager to touch-up and reassemble what they see in front of their eyes. What we need, in other words, are readers who do not understand certain features associated with paperbound or screen-based reading as exclusive options, but who explore them as equally important elements of what reading in past, present, and future is all about.

Today’s debates about the cultural impact of advanced computing rarely provide enough space to emphasize the “and” rather than the “either/or.” Dominant voices in these arguments urge us to take sides and, energized by technological optimism about the “next new thing” or by horror at the speed of progress, they make us think of one media platform and media practice as the sole site of future meaning and development. Ever more often labeled as digital natives, today’s students need to be encouraged to practice the art of slow, paperbound reading so they can learn that our encounter with text is not solely for the sake of information processing. But they also need to acquire critical skills as screen readers because reading has never been solely about aesthetic pleasure and the overcoming of instrumental reason. Rather than lament the state of reading today, let us understand our times as ripe with opportunity—the opportunity to develop concepts of reading far more comprehensive and multi-faceted than anything we have known in the past.


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About The Author:

Lutz Koepnick is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German and Film Studies at Vanderbilt University. You can visit his home page at www.lutzkoepnick.com.