reading redux

There’s a good essay by Matthew Kirschenbaum in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) that contrasts the NEA’s focus on a particularly solitary, non-purposeful, and linear form of reading with reading practices online. He describes the ways that reading is being reimagined in a digital environment – not as an inferior activity, but one that is both similar and different to pre-digital reading.

To Read or Not to Read deploys its own self-consistent iconography to tell us what reading is. In the pages of the report we find images of an adolescent male bent over a book, a female student sitting alone reading against a row of school lockers, and a white-collar worker studying a form. These still lives of the literate represent reading as self-evident — we know it when we see it. Yet they fail to acknowledge that such images have coexisted for centuries with other kinds of reading that have their own iconography and accouterments: Medieval and early modern portraits of scholars and scribes at work at their desks show them adorned with many books (not just one), some of them bound and splayed on exotic devices for keeping them open and in view; Thomas Jefferson famously designed a lazy susan to rotate books in and out of his visual field. That kind of reading values comparison and cross-checking as much as focus and immersion — lateral reading as much as reading for depth.

That is the model of reading that seems compatible with the Web and other new electronic media. Yet it also raises fundamental questions about what it means to read, and what it means to have read something. . . . The authors of the report tend to homogenize “the computer” without acknowledging the diversity of activity — and the diversity of reading — that takes place on its screen. Our screens are spaces where new forms like blogs and e-mail and chats commingle with remediations of older forms, like newspapers and magazines — or even poems, stories, and novels. Reading your friend’s blog is not likely a replacement for reading Proust, but some blogs have been a venue for extraordinary writing, and we are not going to talk responsibly or well about what it means to read online until we stop conflating genre with value.

Kirschenbaum goes on to talk about the ways that reading and writing are beginning to blur. All very interesting stuff. He also has a new book coming out in January that sounds worthwhile, if technically a bit daunting – melding technology and literary sleuthing, coming up with new ways to pore over the archives of works in progress.


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