In Defense of Reading -- Again

Reading has been in the news again lately -- mostly because it doesn't seem to be anywhere else. According to a Pew Research Center study on the subject, the median number of books read by the "average American" is a grand total of five a year -- which has led to some understandable, if predictable, hand-wringing (for example here and here). Yet statistically speaking, things are not all bad: 28 percent of American adults say they read at least one e-book in 2013 (up 5 percentage points from previous year), and 69 percent say they read at least one print book (up 4 percentage points). Granted, the "one book a year" standard sets the reading bar pretty low. Nevertheless, the disconnect between the recent wave of elegies for reading, and the fact that reading is not actually declining in America, seems worth exploring.

As it turns out, there's a long history of writers bemoaning the death of reading, and an even longer history of general anxiety that learning is on the decline. In one of the earliest such examples, the Greek philosopher Plato relates a story of the ancient Egyptians worrying that a strange new technology -- making marks on a papyrus -- is going to cause people to forget how to memorize crucial information. Yes, once upon a time -- a time, that is, when oral tradition was the dominant mode of passing information down the generations -- writing itself was feared to be subversive.

Of course, without written alphabets and double-entry book-keeping, it seems unlikely that modern civilization as we know it would ever have gotten off the ground. But as many anthropologists and linguists will tell you, writing is only good for communication and memorialization as long as there are readers who are willing and able to decipher it. And so for almost as long as there has been writing, there have been authors worried that the other end of the communicative circuit is on the verge of breaking down. Wisely, two of the most famous such worriers reframe their anxieties about the perceived decline of reading as defenses of what makes literature worth reading in the first place.

For Sir Philip Sidney, author of The Defence of Poesy (circa 1575; published 1595), reading is unquestionably the most direct path to knowledge. The question then becomes how best to remember what one has read:

If reading be foolish without remembering, memory being the only treasure of knowledge, those words which are fittest for memory, are likewise most convenient for knowledge. Now, that verse far exceedeth prose in the knitting up of the memory, the reason is manifest: the words, besides their delight, which hath a great affinity to memory, being so set as one cannot be lost, but the whole work fails: which accusing itself, calleth the remembrance back to itself, and so most strongly confirmeth it.

For Sidney, it is clear that poetry lends itself best to memorization, thus effectively synthesizing older and newer forms of learning -- a point I made in my previous blog. Several centuries later, in another great entry under the (admittedly relatively small) category of "Best Defense of Poetry," Percy Shelley concurs. His A Defense of Poetry (1821; published 1840) contains both an illuminating history of verse and a full-throated endorsement of poetry's powers to inspire, awaken, and move. All of this, however, is predicated on the existence of readers willing and able to make the effort; since "All things exist as they are perceived, at least in relation to the percipient [perceiver]," we can only experience the beauty of poetry -- which, at its best, "strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms" -- if we take the time to read it. If poets "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," in Shelley's famous concluding phrase, then we readers are the judicial branch of the literary world, interpreting the "laws" of the books and putting those interpretations into practice in our lives.

Fortunately for us, there are plenty of types of reading available, although this variety tends to get lost in headlines and study reports. In academia, critics and teachers have long prized highly focused, granular interpretations of particular texts and passages, considering carefully their connotations, denotations, and allusions on levels of going all the way down to individual word usage and even punctuation placement. But such "close reading" -- now back in fashion in many English departments, albeit with new twists, after being eclipsed by more historically and politically oriented forms of criticism in the 1980s and 1990s -- has been joined by what the critic and theorist Franco Moretti calls "distant reading": taking advantage of the increasing digitization of literary archives to reveal literary trends and patterns -- for example, the rise and fall of heroines' names as the titles of novels -- that only become visible when masses of data can be analyzed functionally. This version of the "digital humanities" is one area, at least, where the traditional humanities can embrace new media technologies without fear of permanently losing eyeballs to video screens (keeping in mind, I think, that statistical analyses should supplement and inform rather than supplant traditional close reading and interpretation).

There are yet more forms of reading being advocated these days. "Slow reading" -- the literary equivalent of the Slow Food movement -- seeks to encourage readers to savor focused reading experiences in an age of multi-tasking and information-skimming. Re-reading also has its proponents, both as an interpretive practice (one long-standing definition of "literature" is that it comprises any text that yields new insights every time one returns to it) and as an antidote to the relentless novelty of consumer culture.

For the average reader, many of these distinctions are probably, well, academic. And even English professors are "average" readers at least some of the time, especially when we read for pleasure -- which is still the top reason most readers give for doing it. But reading for pleasure carries its own demands and responsibilities: as renowned science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin observes in her updated defense of reading, "A book won't move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won't move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won't do the work for you." From Plato to postmodernity, reading has always presented challenges, and those of us who love it have always both feared and worked for its survival. Perhaps it is that very fear that keeps us working, and in turn keeps reading -- and writing, for that matter -- so dynamic, satisfying, and vital. To repurpose the concluding lines of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18," we might say about reading what the speaker says about his mistress: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." Or on a lighter note, we might go with Groucho Marx: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Either way, the desire to read is alive and well.