Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 12: December 2008


Perspective

Writing about Reading

Warning: This essay is more than ten thousand words long. It may contain long and complex sentences offering up a variety of ideas, some of which are not resolved neatly into simple black-and-white conclusions or catchphrases, in a sequence that’s not neatly linear but involves a number of digressions and semi-related topics. There may be words of more than two syllables. I may quote writers who tend toward sesquipedalian polysyllabic styling more than I am inclined to do even in my most rococo moods, and I have very little motivation to reduce such writers’ eloquence to my own relatively simplistic verbiage. (I tried to work “rodomontade” into that sentence—which is only 49 words long—but failed. Those whose redundancy detectors went into the red zone on “sesquipedalian polysyllabic” are hereby congratulated and excused from reading this warning.) If you believe any worthwhile topic can be encompassed in a neat series of bullet points or a 750-word commentary, if novellas strike you as too long for fiction, you may find this Perspective and some of the comments included on the indigestible side. In short, heed the title of Dorothea Salo’s blog. You have been warned.

They’re at it again.

The doom-cryers who assert we don’t read any more—or, if we do, it’s not the right kind of reading, not the literary reading we all used to do every single day back in the Golden Age of universal literacy.

The heavy internet users who think “we” (they?) can no longer think deeply—and blame Google.

The gleeful mediaphiles who hail the end of print literacy as not only happening (and inevitable) but a Very Good Thing.

The lovers of history who believe we’ll all be better off once we get back to man’s natural state of entirely oral/aural communication.

And those who somehow became convinced that the Big Publishing approach to book publishing in the 1980s and 1990s is the only way publishing can or should work—and decry the “death” of New York-centric commercial publishing as an event of grave cultural importance.

The names may be new. Some of the arguments may be novel. A number of the basic ideas, which might be summarized as either GTHIAH if you’re one of that crowd or TWPLF if you’re in another crowd, go back decades. (Going To Hell In A Handbasket; The Wonderful Post-Literate Future. Next question?)

This end-of-year issue seems like a good time to note and comment on a few of these discussions over the past 12 or 13 months, harking back as well to some of the predecessors. I do so with a couple of caveats which do belong in bullet points:

·         For the last few months and probably the next week or two, I’ve been a poster child for reading fewer books. I haven’t been to my library in weeks (months?) and, other than reading an entire preliminary book from the screen in order to prepare a foreword, I haven’t done much book reading since our cruise in June. My excuse? I’ve been writing a book along with everything else—and doing a few hundred hours of research in order to write the book. When the book’s done, I expect to get back to more long-form reading.

·         It would seem reasonable that the most cogent arguments for a post-literate world would be offered as videos (and not just talking heads) or in some other non-textual fashion. For all I know, that may be true—but I’m only citing text sources. That feels wrong, just as reading long essays about our inability to cope with long text forms has an odd feel to it.

The NEA Strikes Again

It’s called To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. You’ll find it at www.arts.gov/research/ ToRead.pdf. It’s 98 pages long and came out a year ago (November 2007). It claims to add “vastly more data from numerous sources” to the 2004 Reading at Risk. Here’s the key message:

The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.

How does one summarize this disturbing story? As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. (The shameful fact that nearly one-third of American teenagers drop out of school is deeply connected to declining literacy and reading comprehension.) With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.

As a sidenote, one wonders how this report was prepared, given that the capital “T”s in the PDF come out as “s” or “sh” when I copy-and-paste…much as though the PDF is a scanned image of a printed document, which is so bizarre for a contemporary publication as to almost defy belief. But that’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Another quote from the preface: “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” The number one activity on one of those “newer electronic media,” namely the internet, is…reading. At least it’s reading as I understand the term: Taking in a stream of words visually with the expectation of drawing meaning from them.

Dana Gioia is now certain he’s won over any of us doubters from 2004: “It is no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists. It is now time to become more committed to solving it or face the consequences. The nation needs to focus more attention and resources on an activity both fundamental and irreplaceable for democracy.” (Emphasis added.) Apparently people (certainly including me) concluded that the 2004 report wasn’t convincing; the job of the new report is to overcome any doubts. Unfortunately, to do so, it appears that NEA “cooked the data,” as one knowledgeable commenter notes.

Digging in to the details

First, let’s browse through the report noting a few items. Starting with the executive summary, the “clear” picture painted in the introduction becomes fuzzier. “Americans are reading less” suddenly translates to “young adults are reading fewer books”—which actually translates to “fewer books not required for work or school.” We soon see “read for fun” repeated as a key measure…intermixed with “read a book” and “literary reading.”

Which is it? Reading at all, reading for fun, reading a book, or reading “literature” (with NEA’s famously narrow definition of what constitutes literature)?

How bad is the crisis? If we accept the numbers at face value, there’s an asserted sales decline from 2000 to 2006 of 100 million books from 1.6 billion books in 2000: A six percent decline over six years. Wouldn’t it be interesting if libraries showed an increase of more than 100 million circulation over those six years? (Interestingly, official government figures show roughly 2.3 billion trade books sold in 2006 in the U.S., out of a total 3.08 billion books sold—but I’m sure there’s some set of numbers that backs up NEA’s assertion.)

Guess what: According to ALA’s figures, public library circulation in the U.S. increased by nearly 300 million items from 2000 to 2004—and I’m nearly certain it’s continued to rise, even before the current economic problems. Even if only half of those items are books, that means increased library circulation more than makes up for any decline in book sales.

There are lots of tables in this report, all crying doom—and some of them use interesting tricks. One table showing distress about declining “average prose literacy scores” of adults between 1992 and 2003 carefully uses a numeric decline rather than a percentage decline, possibly because the asserted declines for people with bachelor’s and graduate degrees are on the order of 4% or less (over 11 years)—and claimed declines in “prose literacy” for adults with less education are on the order of 2% to 3%. At that level of decline over more than a decade, you want to start asking questions about sample size and probable error, while noting that “-13” sounds a lot more impressive than “-3.8%.” The next table wholly befuddles me: One that claims that only 31% of people with bachelor’s degrees are “proficient in reading prose.” At that point, don’t you want to know more about what “proficient” actually means?

Lots of stuff in the report is likely to be true but not very startling. If you read for fun more often, you’re likely to be a better writer: I don’t doubt that. People who read proficiently are more likely to have white-collar jobs: Seems likely. “Literary readers” are more likely to “enrich our cultural and civic life”—that is, to attend The Right Kind of Event (art museums, concerts, plays: while jazz and sporting events make it into the list, rock concerts do not). People who don’t read well are more likely to drop out of high school: I believe that.

Since when isn’t it reading if it’s not a book?

As noted earlier, I haven’t read a lot of books in the last few months. I suspect I haven’t read anything since July 2008 that NEA would count as a literary book. Does that mean I haven’t been reading? Absolutely not—and it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading literature (I read all three of the most widely-distributed science fiction magazines, although I suppose proper NEA types would dismiss science fiction as Not Really Literature).

The deeper I go into the report, the more I wonder about the mix of sources and what was actually being asked. At times, it seems clear that only books count. At times, it’s clear that only “reading for fun” or “leisure reading” really counts as reading—and I’m not sure I’d classify time spent reading the NEA report, for example, as either of those. (It’s surely not fun, and although I’m not being paid directly for reading it, I wouldn’t call this leisure either.) I’m guessing—and it’s a guess I can’t resolve—that most teenagers don’t count reading on the web as “reading for fun” because they don’t think of it as primarily reading. Certainly, the frequent discussion of “pages” seems to discount anything that’s not print.

Much of this seems to come from a Kaiser study, Generation M, which dates back to 2005. I read that study and commented on it briefly in the Mid-Fall 2005 issue of Cites & Insights (5:13)—and what I gleaned from the report was that most teens were doing quite a bit of reading. Ignoring reading for school purposes, 47% of them read a magazine on a typical day, 46% read a book, 34% read a newspaper—and they spent almost as much time reading print for purposes other than school as they did playing videogames.

“In a typical day, nearly three out of four young people report reading for pleasure.” That’s what I took from the Kaiser report, and I found it hard to read that as “reading is doomed” or anything of the sort. But I don’t have NEA’s mindset. Table 1E in the NEA report chooses a different source, a UCLA study comparing 1994 and 2006—which, oddly enough, concludes that (ahem) three out of four high school seniors read for pleasure every week. But that’s down from 80% a dozen years earlier (1994)—and NEA emphasizes the 25% increase in “non-readers.”

Negativity will see you through

I am impressed (but not surprised) at the report’s ability to twist any positive study to show a negative outcome. Indiana University runs a poll on leisure book reading (note again: book reading)—and found that college seniors surveyed in 2007 reported considerably more leisure book reading than did college freshman. Somehow, this becomes bad news because they’re not reading enough.

You won’t be surprised that there’s an approving quote from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which 23 years ago concluded that print was dead:

“Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens. Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters.”

In 1985, Postman said “To be sure, there are still readers and there are many books published” just before issuing the dismal comment above. In 2008, there are many more books published and sold than there were in 1985 (for example, public library circulation rose from 1.07 billion to 2.01 billion between 1985 and 2004, and has continued to rise since then; U.S. book sales apparently grew from 2.36 billion in 2001 to 3.08 billion in 2006). There are also, to be sure, many more titles published each year. Perhaps Postman or NEA believes nobody’s actually reading all those books sold and circulated, but I’m unwilling to do so—and the numbers indicate strongly, to all but the most devoted Cassandras, that book reading has expanded quite substantially from 1985 to 2006. (Even NEA can’t help but note that there were three times as many new titles in 2005 as in 1995—but only after highlighting a tiny drop in new titles from 2004 to 2005. After that, it’s interesting that NEA chooses book sales figures that are substantially lower than the BISG figures the Census Bureau regards as authoritative, reducing sales from around $50 billion to around $29 billion. I wouldn’t say there’s a bias toward negativity here but…well, yes, I would say that.) Oh look: Here’s a graph with a non-zero baseline, to dramatize a supposed drop in “consumer book” unit sales—a drop that is, in general, a slow rise. (There are lots of defective graphs in this book.)

When slow growth equals disastrous decline

What constitutes a dramatic drop in book sales? A compound annual growth rate for unit sales of one category of books that’s projected at 0.2%...even though the growth rate was 1.3% (per year) from 1997 to 2002 and 2.4% from 1992 to 1996. Slowing growth in an old, relatively mature industry only constitutes a disastrous decline in very special thinking.

A bit later, NEA’s special definition of “reading” becomes clearer: “A sustained act of participation with a text, an act requiring great resources of memory, imagination, and intent questioning.” NEA only cares about the right kind of reading, the kind that’s part of The Arts (as NEA defines The Arts). Reading Cites & Insights doesn’t count. Reading even the longest essays on blogs really doesn’t count. Reading Churchill or Emerson is not real reading.

A few pages later, we get a nice slap at blogs—including blogs maintained by newspapers. Ah, and here’s good old Sven Birkerts to assure us We’re All Doomed. It’s clear that “screen reading” is an inferior beast. (Maybe, maybe not, but it’s still reading.)

Later, the report gets back to those “reading scale scores” for 17-year-olds. Just how bad has the “decline” been from 1984 to 2004? The number (whatever it means) has gone from 289 in 1984 to 285 in 2004—which doesn’t even make a dramatic drop when you start the plot at 275 points (as NEA does). After all, that’s a 1.3% drop over 20 years. Even if you start at the supposed high point (290 in 1988-1992), it’s only a 1.7% drop. The caption claims that a change of 1.3% is “significant.” Really? Statistical significance and real-world significance aren’t the same thing, and I doubt the real-world significance of a 1.3% drop over 20 years. (But see later: Turns out that even the 1.3% drop is cooked data.)

Another chart manages to be much more alarming—showing huge increases between 1999 and 2004 for 9-year-olds and pretty dramatic decreases for 17-year-olds. How? By reporting the point change from 1984. This isn’t chartjunk: It’s crisis-mongering.

Admittedly I just find some assertions unbelievable—such as the one that only 13% of adults were “proficient” at prose literacy in 2003 (as opposed to 15% in 1992). I’m sorry, but I flat-out disbelieve a definition of prose proficiency that excludes 87% of American adults. But then, part of it is “compare and contrast the meaning of metaphors in a poem,” so maybe I’m just too stupid to appreciate what’s happening here. I will cheerfully admit that I spend very little time comparing and contrasting poetic metaphors. I resent any suggestion that I’m semi-literate.

Libraries? Unreliable

The report simply ignores library circulation—and sweeps it away with a comment about the lack of reliable national figures on book circulation as opposed to other media. That’s a nice tactic to avoid the clear indication that Americans read a lot of library books and that those numbers are growing.

Similarly, NEA has cherry-picked the most negative possible sales figures, interpretations and graphic presentations to make this as much of a Crisis Report as the 2004 jeremiad—so that Gioia can assert that there can no longer be any debate.

Maybe that’s right. Maybe NEA—at least under Gioia’s leadership—is so intent on its message of declining literacy (as NEA defines literacy) that there’s no point debating NEA’s reports.

Some blog comments

Barbara Fister posted “Kindling debate” on November 19, 2007 at ACRLog. She notes that “the new NEA jeremiad, er, report on how reading is going to hell in a handbasket (again)” came out on the same day as Amazon’s Kindle. “So, if nobody reads anymore, is Kindle—or, as Newsweek puts it in swooningly glowing terms, ‘the future of reading’—doomed?”

Doesn’t matter. “According to the NEA, using a Kindle isn’t reading… The only reading that counts is in print and for no particular purpose other than pleasure.” She notes that NEA’s report is ahistorical: It cites a supposed decrease over the past decade but that’s almost certainly higher than fifty years ago. (A 1955 Gallup poll showed all of 17% of Americans reading books.)

Fister concludes that there’s more skepticism this time around than in 2004, “the last time they reported the sky was falling.” I think that’s true. I think there was less commentary in general. “And given the vigor with which the Kindle gadget is being debated, the death of reading—and books—seems to be greatly exaggerated.” (I added the first comment on the post, noting that I should be dissecting the NEA jeremiad but, given its length, “I’d rather, you know, read a book”—and that whenever I went to the local library, I saw loads of people checking out lots of those antiques and bringing them back. “I guess they must have really interesting bindings.” Kim Leeder objected to the idea that an hour a day reading blogs and news online isn’t real reading—and Roger Hiles suggested the “1475 edition” of the NEA report, lamenting the decline in reading illuminated manuscripts.)

Fister points to a post that same day by Linda Braun on YALSA’s blog, “Defining reading.” Braun questions the definition of “reading” and how it weakens the NEA report. “If we as a society don’t seriously investigate how we define reading, and recognize that reading formats other than books is reading, we are going to alienate many teens…”

Be careful not to make teens feel that just because they are reading something online, and not reading a traditional format such as a paperback book, that that reading doesn’t count. Let teens know that reading in a variety of formats is something you respect and value.

It’s not just teens. I resent any implication that I’ve become aliterate because I haven’t gone through a print book in the last few months. I’ve probably read the equivalent of at least two books a week (that is, 100,000 to 200,000 words), between newspapers, magazines, blog posts and other online sources—including the drudgery of that 98-page NEA PDF.

Fister followed up on December 1 with “Ketchup is a form of exercise,” also on ACRLog. She notes a couple of if:book discussions on the NEA “threnody” and that one very common form of academic reading is “lateral” rather than linear—”comparing texts, following footnotes, pursuing leads from one line of thought to another, books spread out for easier access.” But that’s not real reading, Barbara: If you’re not immersed in a novel, poem, short story or play (which should be performed, not read—but never mind), you’re not really reading.

We’ll get to the if:book pieces (and the article linked to) in a moment, but first a couple more library posts. Alice Sneary at It’s all good posted “Morte de reader?” on January 21, 2008 and wondered about NEA’s definition of reading. The comments are delightful. Patricia Martin offers a lovely comment on both NEA reports:

The NEA has had a hard time selling the data in both reports to researchers who find that the results are mixed. Certainly reading has increased across formats. Whether book reading has declined, in particular the classics, or reading in digital platforms is declining is not clear. The NEA is using a tried and true tactic for increasing its budget, which succeeded. They created a lot of anxiety around a supposed middle-class illiteracy crisis and earned a budget increase to solve it. Not that more funds to the NEA is a bad thing, it just tells us something about NEA’s intentions with the research. [Emphasis added]

That comment explains a lot. George Needham is irked by other aspects of the NEA reports and others of that kind:

The thing that irks me about these “death of reading” jeremiads is that the authors always seem to assume there was some halcyon era when all people did was sit around reading for pleasure. That is such a silly notion, and so patently false to anyone with a sense of history or sociology, that you wonder why anyone takes these people seriously.

Stephen Abram posted “Reading down or up? Not” on November 25, 2007 at Stephen’s lighthouse. It’s a long post on the NEA report, mostly citing some of Stephen Krashen’s comments on NEA’s figures and the surveys behind them. Krashen has done deeper study of the numbers than I have here and reaches similar conclusions: NEA’s cherry-picking years, graphical methods and other means to establish a crisis.

if:book on the NEA report

On November 29, 2007 Ben Vershbow posted “the NEA’s misreading of reading,” pointing to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Chronicle of higher education critique of NEA’s report (which I don’t have access to). Some quotes from Vershbow’s post:

Though clearly offered with the best of intentions, the report demonstrates an astonishingly simplistic view of what reading is and where it is and isn’t occurring. Overflowing with bar graphs and charts measuring hours and minutes spent reading within various age brackets, the study tries to let statistics do the persuading, but fails at almost every turn to put these numbers in their proper social or historical context, or to measure them adequately against other widespread forms of reading taking place on computers and the net.

If we’re to believe Patricia Martin, the first clause in that paragraph may be far too kind. But never mind…

The study speaks, as Kirschenbaum puts it, “as though there is but a single, idealized model of reading from which we have strayed”—a leisurely, literary sort of reading embodied by that classic image of the solitary reader hunched over a book in deep concentration. Kirschenbaum rightly argues that this way of reading is simply one of a complicated and varied set of behaviors that have historically operated around texts. More to the point, many of these alternative forms — skimming, browsing, lateral reading, non-linear reading, reading which involves writing (glossing, annotation etc.) to name some — today happen increasingly in digital contexts, constituting what Kirschenbaum refers to broadly as a grand “remaking of reading.” The NEA document takes little of this into account…

There’s certainly cause for concern about what might be lost as deep extended reading of deep extensive books declines, and in their crude way the NEA’s stats and figures do tell a worrying tale of shifting cultural priorities. Indeed, the most appealing aspect of To Read or Not to Read is its passionate commitment to a set of humanistic values: sustained thinking, personal and moral growth, a critical outlook, the cultivation of knowledge. Few would disagree that these are things that ought to be held onto in the face of relentless technological change and a rapacious commercial culture, but to insist that the book and one particular romanticized notion of reading must be the sole vessels for transporting these values into the future seems both naïve and needlessly limiting.

Among commenters, Nancy Kaplan gets back to the data—and as with others who poke at it, finds curiosities. The treatment of 17-year-old reading proficiency tests distorts the data, showing a trend “where none exists” and dramatizing that non-trend. She links to a proper presentation of the same data over the entire span of the tests—but that accurate, even if non-zero-baseline, graph simply won’t support a crisis theory. Another source used to claim a decline in reading proficiency says, in the original report, that there were no statistically significant changes in adult prose literacy between 1992 and 2003, a quote that distinctly does not appear in NEA’s use of the data. Kaplan ends:

There is ample evidence that people are reading many, many words. Just not, perhaps, so much in printed books. The Center for the Future of the Book is pursuing important directions for digital reading environments and it is vital that many such experiments take place. It is equally vital that we not get ourselves bamboozled by distorted and cherry-picked data.

Cherry-picking and distortion became obvious even to my unsophisticated eyes and without going back to source data. “Bamboozle” is a nice term for what NEA seems to be doing.

On November 30, 2007, Vershbow posted a longer critique by Nancy Kaplan (who, for the record, is Executive Director of the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore) under “reading responsibly: nancy kaplan on the NEA’s data distortion.” It’s quite a post. A few excerpts:

The [NEA’s] entire argument…depends on the ability to demonstrate both that reading proficiency is declining and that the number of people who choose to read books in their leisure time is also declining. From those two trends, the NEA draws some inferences about what declines in reading books and declines in reading proficiency mean for the nation as a whole…

Despite the numerous charts, graphs and tables in To Read or Not to Read, a careful and responsible reading of the complete data provided by the NAEP and the NAAL [source data for the NEA report] undermine the conclusions the NEA draws. Two examples of problematic uses of primary data sets will illustrate the issues.

Her first example, also given in her comment, shows the distortion in the 17-year-old proficiency graph. If you look at the original data, you find that the 2004 score is the same as the 1971 score: There simply is no downward trend over the long term. Her second example is one that also struck me: Taking a truncated set of data for 17-year-olds and 9-year-olds and changing the scale to exaggerate differences.

Misleading graphs based on manipulated data are not the only fudge factor the NEA employs…

Expanding on the NAAL report’s summary that “between 1992 and 2003, there were no statistically significant changes in average prose...literacy for the total population ages 16 and older...,” Kaplan notes that the report even explained the supposed declines among adults with bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees, declines highlighted in the NEA report:

How could prose literacy scores decrease at every level of education beyond high school without a decrease in the overall score? This pattern is called Simpson’s Paradox. The answer is that the relative size of the groups changed. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with postsecondary education increased and the percentage of adults who did not complete high school decreased. The increase in the percentage of adults with postsecondary education, who, on average, had higher prose scores than adults who did not complete high school, offsets the fact that average prose literacy scores declined at every level of educational attainment beyond high school.

Could one suggest that pushing more people through college may result in more people who don’t compare metaphors in poetry with great proficiency?

There is little doubt that modern information economies require many more proficient readers than older industrial economies did. Because of changes in the nature and conditions of work, declining proficiency in reading among American adults might cause some concern if not alarm. It is surely also the case that educational institutions at every level can and should do a better job. Yet there is little evidence of an actual decline in literacy rates or proficiency. As a result, the NEA’s core argument breaks down. Even if we assume that high school seniors in 1971 spent more of their leisure time reading books than today’s high school seniors do (although there is no data going back far enough to support the case one way or the other), there simply is no evidence that today’s youngsters don’t read as well as Mr. Gioia’s peers did at a comparable age. From the information available, we simply cannot construct any relationship, let alone a causal one, between voluntary reading of books and reading proficiency.

Reading well, doing well, and doing good may exhibit strong correlations but the underlying dynamics producing each of the three effects may have little to do with what Americans choose to do in their leisure time. Read responsibly, the data underlying the NEA’s latest report simply do not support Mr. Gioia’s assertions.

Like many other federal agencies under our current political regime, the National Endowment for the Arts seems to have fixed the data to fit its desired conclusions.

We may be going to hell in a postliterate handbasket—but, as in 2004, NEA hasn’t made the case. And, even though this report states “It is no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists,” it’s less dystopian than the 2004 report—which said reading itself was “at risk” and projected that “literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

I devoted just over 2,000 words to that 2004 report. I think it’s worth repeating that essay in its entirety, since the new report builds on the earlier one:

The Reading Disaster (or Not)

This section originally appeared as the lead Perspective in Cites & Insights 4:10, August 2004.

You can hardly have missed the report. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) says that only 47% of Americans read “literature” in 2002—a drop of 7% from 1992. “Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57%, down from 61%,” according to Hillel Italie’s July 7 AP story. NEA chair Dana Gioia, a poet, called this shocking and “a reason for grave concern.”

The report blames the internet, TV and movies. Gioia: “I think what we’re seeing is an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that shift.” Fair enough—but I’m not sure I buy this: “We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers. This isn’t a case of ‘Johnny Can’t Read,’ but ‘Johnny Won’t Read.’”

I’m not sure what Gioia thinks Johnny’s doing on the internet. It may not be “engaged” reading, but it sure is reading. By the way, “literature” includes westerns but not philosophy, history, or any nonfiction. “Literature” is poems, plays and narrative fiction. The 18-24 cohort shows the sharpest decline: 60% described themselves as reading “literature” in 1992, but only 43% did so in 2002.

The NEA has an odd way of stating numbers: “In 1992, 76.2 million adults in the United States did not read a book. By 2002, that figure had increased to 89.9 million.” Here’s another way of stating those facts: In 1992, 113.8 million adults in the United States read at least one book. By 2002, that number had changed to 125.2 million.

The first statement might reasonably be thought of as “a call to arms,” as Mitchell Kaplan of the American Booksellers Association says about the NEA survey. The second? It’s true that the number of book readers may be growing more slowly than the U.S. population as a whole—but to call that a “drop in reading” oversimplifies a complex situation.

Gioia adds another comment that I find bemusing: “There’s a communal aspect to reading that has collapsed and we need to find ways to restore it.” A communal aspect to reading, particularly reading book-length narrative? I would have said book reading is one of the most private, solitary pastimes available. But then, I’ve never been much for book clubs. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?

The study’s title is even more dramatic than the oddly stated numbers: Reading at Risk. Not “a bunch of young adults aren’t reading books, and that’s interesting,” but reading itself is “at risk.” The AP story even works in the dramatic fall in book sales in 2003. Remember? Book sales increased slightly in revenue but numbers sold declined—to the tune of one percent. Those few remaining readers in the U.S.—a mere 125 million adults plus some number of younger readers—managed to buy 2.22 billion (thousand million, for non-U.S. readers) books.

Don Wood forwarded a report to PUBLIB from PW Newsline referring to the “grim state of books and literature.” Grim. That goes along with reading being “at risk.” The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a long story with lots of unhappy quotes, including another one from Gioia: “The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture will study the pages of this report in vain.” More people are reading books now than did 10 years ago. That’s good news, given the amount of doom crying there’s been about attention spans and lack of interest in reading, even if the proportion of book readers has declined slightly. (Yes, I am calling 4% over ten years “slightly,” particularly given the increase in other demands for time and attention over that decade.)

The Chronicle’s Scott McLemee uses statistical manipulation to make that drop look even worse. He calls it “a decline of 7%”—and it’s true that 56.6% is 7% less than 60.9%. He also calls the drop in literary readers 14% by using the same percentage-of-percentage methodology.

Here’s where I think the NEA report goes off the deep end. In crying with alarm about declining literary reading among young readers it says, “Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.” I don’t know what to say about an assertion like that. It seems to say that, not only will the percentage of young adults who read literature continue to decline at an arithmetic-percentage rate, but those who do read now will stop reading as they get older. The 43% of people now 18 to 24 who read literature will, by the time they’re 68 to 74, have abandoned literature altogether, and nobody younger will be reading literature either. (Those kids who love Harry Potter will all have learned better, for example, and stop reading literature as soon as Harry graduates.)

Gioia starts out saying that the NEA “shouldn’t try to tell the culture what to do, or not to do.” But he certainly wants “the culture” to do something. He points out the report’s finding of high correlations between reading literature and attending museums, supporting the performing arts, and volunteering for charity organizations. “The decline that we see in reading has not only cultural consequences, but social and civic consequences that are very frightening for a democracy.” NEA doesn’t want to tell us what to do? “If literary intellectuals—writers, scholars, librarians, book people in general—don’t take charge of the situation, our culture will be impoverished. When you look at the figures for young readers, that says to me that we don’t have a lot of time.”

Librarians Comment

After the cries of alarm from NEA and the Chronicle, and various alarmed editorials and columns elsewhere (including a Newsweek piece that seems to blame the “decline” in reading on the huge increase in number of new book titles published each year), it’s been refreshing to see some reactions within the library community. Anne McVea used the subject heading “Logic at Risk” to note that people just might be reading nonfiction, magazines, newspapers—or even listening to audiobooks. “I don’t think I’m striking at the heart of literary culture if I read Churchill’s memoirs instead of Margaret Atwood.” Others also note that nonfiction books show growing circulation.

Miriam Bobkoff cited my citation of Bowker’s press release on the growing number of new titles—and that new title growth was greatest in juvenile and nonfiction areas (biography, history and religion). “Somebody is reading. Lots of somebodies…”

Finally, there was a thread on the ALA Council list, initiated by Michael Gorman—who thinks “the NEA is crying ‘wolf!’ in its report on reading.” Gorman notes that the major decline is in reading of “literature” and that poetry and plays (in written form) have always been specialized tastes. (For that matter, isn’t reading a play false to the form itself? Aren’t plays written to be performed?) Gorman also notes the lack of data to show an overall decline in reading—since there’s lots of reading outside the book (and especially the literary) market. Karen Schneider notes that she reads lots of material on the screen (“articles from many major newspapers”) and listens to books. There was more to the thread (which probably continues—I don’t habitually track the list and picked up these items from Library Juice), including Nann Blaine Hilyard’s note that some “narrative nonfiction” should count as literature, even though it doesn’t as far as NEA is concerned.

Reading at Risk?

Do I believe the NEA report identifies a crisis? Not really. The NEA did not identify a decline in reading. It may have identified a decline in the percentage of adult Americans who read what the NEA identifies as literature. It’s possible (but a good deal less certain) that the NEA identified a slight decline in the percentage of adult Americans who read books in a given year. That one’s tougher. While 17,000 is generally a large enough sample for statistical accuracy, book reading (and reading in general) is such a wildly varied pastime for most people that a 4% “decline” over ten years may or may not have any significance, and may or may not even be real. (Actually, if the margin of error for the survey was 2%, then the survey shows nothing at all about book reading in general. There’s also a broader issue: Is it possible to do broadly-representative surveys of well-educated people these days? I know I don’t have the time or credulence for phone surveys at all; how about you?) But let’s assume for the moment that it is real—not that reading has declined (NEA demonstrated no such thing) but that a slightly smaller percentage of American adults read a book in 2002 than did in 1992.

The possibility that less than half the adult population reads literature each year fails to fill me with dismay. Can anyone identify any period prior to World War II in which a majority of the population of any nation read book-length literature each year? (I’m ignorant, so that’s a legitimate question, but my sense is that there have been very few periods prior to the last century or so in which more than half the adult population was even literate, much less had the leisure, income, and awareness to read book-length literature on a regular basis.)

I think the NEA’s probably wrong to blame the “decline” on television and the movies. Both have been around for quite a while. By most accounts, TV viewing is declining slightly. But then there’s the internet. In 1992, it’s fair to assume that most adult Americans spent little or no time on the internet, particularly outside work. By 2002, most Americans were acquainted with it and many—particularly those in the 18-24 age range—were spending a significant amount of leisure time on it. There were also a lot more magazines in 2002 than in 1992 and the widespread acceptance of DVDs had made movie watching at home both more engrossing and more active. Most of us had less time at home in 2002 than in 1992, given increased work hours.

The number of hours in a day has not increased. As more of us pay attention to health warnings about losing sleep, the number of available hours in a day may have declined slightly. Given the increase in things we want to do—areas to engage our intellects as well as provide pleasure—it’s only probable that some of us will devote less time to other areas. It’s hard to read a book while you’re doing something else; books—and particularly “literature”—don’t fit multitasking lifestyles very well.

Most activity on the internet involves reading and writing. Despite my general dislike for reading long text on a screen, I do a lot of it—skimming, perhaps, but still reading. Indirect internet reading—that is, reading longer items that I’ve printed out—certainly equals a book a month. I read a lot of magazines, certainly more than I did ten years ago. Add the newspaper and I’m pretty certain my overall reading has increased. Do I take as many books out from the library as I did 10 years ago? Probably not, but Cites & Insights is largely to blame for that. I almost never read plays (I’d rather see them performed). I almost never read poetry (and haven’t since college). I do read fiction, mostly when traveling, although it’s rarely “literary” fiction. I don’t claim to be typical in any regard.

Most public libraries in the U.S. show increased usage—and most public libraries do more than check out books, although books (fiction and nonfiction) continue to be the heart of good public libraries. Major bookstores are doing just fine, as are many well-run independents. When you’re talking about what Amazon does well or badly, it’s useful to note Amazon’s primary business: Selling books.

The sky has not fallen. I sincerely doubt that America will be a nation of aliterates in 50 years. [This ends the repeated section.]

Let’s move on from distorted research to stupidity…and “post-literacy” as another form of aliteracy.

Stupid Googlers

Nicholas Carr is an interesting writer and thinker. I subscribe to his blog Rough type (www.roughtype.com). He published a controversial article in the July/August 2008 Atlantic, “Is Google making us stupid?” You can read it at www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200807/google. It’s about 4,250 words long—a little more than half as long as this essay up to here, and Carr’s a much better writer than I am.

A few excerpts from Carr’s commentary:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading…  [M]y concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do…

For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet… Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link…

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded… What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles…

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing…

After citing other anecdotes—an online media blogger who’s given up books altogether, a pathologist who can’t absorb longish articles or even blog posts more than three or four paragraphs long—Carr refers to a study of online research habits that finds a pattern of skimming activity rather than any long-form reading. (That study is apparently based on examination of computer logs at two research sites, which draws into question assumptions about overall habits. I don’t normally go back to a long article to read it in full online; I save it. When the study, or Carr, says “there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read” long articles, I say “why would there be?” But that’s arguing with the “evidence.”) Maryanne Wolf believes “the style of reading promoted by the Net” may be “weakening our capacity…for deep reading.”

Carr manages to take this back to Nietzsche, who switched to a typewriter when his vision began failing. This supposedly changed his writing style: “His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.” Hmm. I can probably write something like 10 words a minute with pen and paper, 70 words a minute with electric typewriter, maybe a bit faster on the computer. I suspect my style is both more fluid and less terse on the computer than it was on the typewriter, since cutting and revision is so much easier—and I could never write well enough in longhand to have anything like a style. Different strokes as usual, I guess, but in any case I’d assert that word processing should tend to reverse any tendency toward terseness brought about by typewriting.

Carr seems to say that our brains are literally changing, with a quick and apparently unsupported pair of sentences: “The changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.” Really?

Carr suggests that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency techniques are mirrored in the net:

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Then we get to Google, beginning with the assertion that the Googleplex is “the Internet’s high church” and “the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism.” Carr equates Google’s aim to index the internet (or, sigh, Brin’s and Page’s notion that Google becomes AI) with “the idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data processing machines.” He asserts flatly that Google and other companies want us distracted:

The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

This presumably makes the Google Book Search project a remarkably large red herring—it’s not really designed to lead us to books, it’s just masking Google’s true intentions.

Carr knows enough history to recognize that we “should be skeptical of my skepticism.” But what I see in this article is not skepticism. It’s an undeserved acceptance of the notion that Carr’s inability to focus is a general societal disease—that we’re becoming “stupid.” I’d agree with much of the paragraph beginning with his admonition to be skeptical of his “skepticism”:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

The last sentence is nonsense: Deep thinking can be and frequently is a creative act, with the deepest thoughts arising when you’re not reading, deeply or otherwise. Is deep reading related to deep thinking? Probably. Is Google out to scuttle deep reading and deep thinking? I don’t believe so—and I don’t believe most people are so entranced with the internet and Google that it represents a major obstacle to deep reading.

The essay ends with this sad statement: “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” I, for one, have no intention of relying on computers to mediate my understanding of the world. Google is a tool. A computer is a toolkit. Even including Gmail, I rarely spend more than half an hour a day in Google—and rarely more than an hour a day “surfing” the internet. (Yes, I spend a lot of time on the computer and online: My part-time job is entirely dependent on the internet and I do all my writing on the computer. But that time is mostly spent reading, thinking and writing—not jumping from place to place.)

If we’re getting stupid, it’s not Google

None of this has anything to do with stupidity. People who do not think deeply aren’t stupid; they’re just not deep thinkers. Philosophers and thinkers of great thoughts have never been more than a tiny minority in any society, and ours is no exception.

Oh, there are definitely enticements for those wishing to be distracted from deep reading and deep thinking. The biggest of those enticements, in terms of time consumed, continues to be what it has been for decades: Television. (I just typed “The tube” and realized that’s an obsolescent name for TV.) I’ll suggest that multitasking in general tends to discourage deep thinking—but multitasking is as likely to involve iPods, cell phones and TVs as it is the internet. And if the internet is involved, Meebo, Twitter and other social interaction tools seem much more distracting than Google. Google is a portal: You use it to go somewhere else. If you’ve become addicted to going lots of places, I don’t believe you can blame the tool.

Anyone still with me? Maybe not. It’s been a lot more than two to four paragraphs since this essay began. Maybe you’ve already skimmed enough to say “Oh, Walt just doesn’t get it—let’s go do some Googling…or maybe there are tweets to catch up with.” The drastic drop in book reading certainly suggests that we can’t handle…oh, wait, there is no drastic drop in book reading.

Reactions

I didn’t see a lot of reactions to Carr’s article in library blogs. Elsewhere, reactions were all over the map, with some people reacting strongly to the silly title of the article or to other reactions.

John Battelle’s reaction to Carr’s assertion that search and browsing are making us stupid boils down to one word: “Balderdash.” But he does go on (in a June 10, 2008 post at John Battelle’s Searchblog):

What Carr is really saying is this: People are not reading long narrative anymore, and that makes me and my pals sad. So let’s blame the Internet!

Battelle feels quite the opposite to Carr:

[W]hen I am deep in search for knowledge on the web, jumping from link to link, reading deeply in one moment, skimming hundreds of links the next, when I am pulling back to formulate and reformulate queries and devouring new connections as quickly as Google and the Web can serve them up, when I am performing bricolage in real time over the course of hours, I am “feeling” my brain light up and “feeling” like I’m getting smarter. A lot smarter, and in a way that only a human can be smarter.

Personally? I know I find things out more easily because of the internet. But I also know that I rarely spend hours doing the kind of stuff Battelle seems to do. I’m fairly certain I can think as well and as deeply now as I could before Google existed; I know for sure I’m more productive, but only others can judge the quality of that production.

Battelle gets lots of comments. One here is excellent—and Carr’s silly title leaves him open to this kind of rejoinder. The commenter talks about buying a tractor after learning a lot about what kind of tractor to buy—from other people via the internet:

When I was young I didn’t get stupid when I got access to things like the public library where I could find and consume more information, faster and less expensively than on my own. The internet is no different.

Charles Cooper came to Carr’s defense at Cnet, starting out by dismissing his critics as “not-so-bright guys” responding to “a very bright guy.” (Clearly we’re dealing with a deep thinker here.) Cooper correctly says some critics “caricatured Carr’s nuanced thesis”—but Carr himself caricatured that “nuanced” thesis through his title. (I don’t find Carr’s thesis especially nuanced, but maybe I’m getting stupid.) Cooper dismisses the title as a “headline” (which may be right if The Atlantic has become a newspaper) and irrelevant to the article itself—and that’s simply nonsense.

Edge has a “Reality Club” discussion on the article. Kevin Kelly specifically questions the Nietzsche anecdote, noting that the author wasn’t just going blind—he was ill and slowly dying, which might have had more impact on his writing style than switching to a typewriter. Kelly thinks the growth of short writing is because there’s a vehicle and marketplace for short things that wasn’t there in the past. But then, this is Kevin Kelly—who believes “jacking in all the time” makes you smarter, even if you lose your ability to think deeply.

Larry Sanger says Carr’s wrong to present this as a collective issue beyond our individual control.

If some of us no longer seem to be able to read a book all the way through, it isn’t because of Google or the vast quantity of information on the Internet. To say that is to buy into a sort of determinism that ultimately denies the very thing that makes us most human and arguably gives us our dignity: our ability to think things through, particularly in depth, in a way that can lead to our changing our minds in deep ways.

Sanger specifically attacks Carr’s suggestion that computer engineers and software coders are to blame.

To pretend that you can blame others (programmers, no less!) for your unwillingness to think long and hard is only a sign of how the problem itself resides within you. It is ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself.

George Dyson believes we’ll lose some ways of thinking but that new generations will find other ways. “The present generation has no childhood immunity to web-based stupidity but future generations will.” But Dyson also seems happy enough for people to give up books—as long as they can tie bowlines and sharpen hunting knives. (He also mentions rebuilding carburetors, a skill I would regard as worthless unless you collect old cars.)

Jason Lanier sides with Sanger:

The thing that is making us stupid is pretending that technological change is an autonomous process that will proceed in its chosen direction independently of us…

The one thought that does the most to make technology worse is the thought that there is only one axis of choice, and that axis runs from pro- to anti-.

There’s more to this discussion, but I’ll let it go at that.

Library reactions

While there may not have been scores of liblog reactions, there have been some.

Daniel Freeman posted “On the internet and the new dark age” at ALA TechSource on September 23, 2008. He links to a Wired piece—but that piece, in classic Wired fashion, seems to ignore the real theses in Carr’s article, responding to the silly title with typically overheated Wired prose. Freeman says:

There can be no question that librarians as a profession have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Internet revolution. The Internet has given us multitudes of new and better ways to serve and connect with our patrons. The Internet has helped us tremendously, and I think most librarians would agree with that even while acknowledging that technology has cost some of us our jobs and forced others to learn a completely new set of skills mid-career.

Frankly, in my corner of the library world, we’re so pro-Internet that I wonder if there is anyone in our profession who might share the sentiments voiced in Nicholas Carr’s piece. So I put it to you, my fellow librarians—how has the Internet had a negative effect on your job? In what ways is the Internet having a negative impact on our profession as a whole?

Like the Wired piece, Freeman’s comment speaks more to Carr’s title than to the article itself—and at least one of the comments on the post seems to do the same. Another comment identifies one negative impact: teenagers (and their teachers) who can’t distinguish between Google results and licensed databases. Actually, most of the comments seem to say there are problems with the internet—not surprisingly.

Peggy Madison offers this:

The information that came to us in the media before the Internet also was full of misinformation. The basic problem is that so many people do not critically think, do not judge the material as truthful or misleading. But critical thinking is not taught in an educational system that is more interested in what is being taught rather than how students should best use their brains. Wouldn’t it be great if librarians could teach critical thinking in their daily work?

A sentiment, I think, that Carr would wholly applaud. Freeman agrees with her in a manner that, frankly, left me wondering whether he read Carr’s article or, ahem, skimmed it after reading the provocative title.

If there is truly a breakdown in critical thinking in our society, the answer is definitely far more complex than “The Internet did it.”

I doubt that Carr would disagree. (It’s odd to find myself defending Carr in this context, since I don’t much care for his article.)

Kim Leeder offers a fairly long and deeply thoughtful commentary in “Google, stupidity, and libraries,” the October 22, 2008 article at In the library with the lead pipe, that new experiment in refereed blogging. Leeder points out early on what became obvious as I was going through comments: Many of those who wrote about Carr’s article didn’t actually read it. “There’s something amazing and a bit disturbing about a culture in which everyone’s opinion is equally important and valid, no matter whether or not one has even a basic knowledge of the subject.”

As an academic librarian, I’m particularly interested in the implications for libraries of Carr’s article. Hand in hand with Carr’s concern about a growing inability to engage in deep reading is the equal possibility of a growing inability to engage in sustained research. Google leads us to believe that searching for information is easy when library research is complex, often frustrating, and full of twists and turns. So the next question is: does it have to be that way? It’s a given that library systems tend to be overly complicated, even for simple searches. The common refrain is: how can we be more like Google?

The followup question is: do we want to?

Leeder thinks about student interest in and ability to conduct complex research. Once again, I’m reminded that in my own undergraduate career, few of us seemed much interested in doing a lot more than was necessary to get by—at least outside of the few courses we were passionate about. I blame, oh, I don’t know, electric typewriters: In 1962, you could scarcely blame computers.

I grew up with computers, but I grew up knowing that they were fickle, fallible, and constantly changing. I still have a collection of old floppy disks with files I will never be able to access again. I greatly enjoy technology, but I maintain a certain skepticism about it.

That said, I had to make a conscious effort to read Nicholas Carr’s article all the way through. The first time I linked to it, I skimmed the first few paragraphs and bookmarked it. The second time, I skimmed further into the text. I didn’t actually read the whole thing until I chuckled at Darlin’s observation on how few had read it and realized that I was not one of them.

What happens to our libraries in a culture where sustained reading and deep research are skills that our students and patrons increasingly do not value? There is no easy answer, but the most critical thing we can do is reflect passion for our work and share it with our students. Benton writes, “Effective teaching requires embodying the joy of learning—particularly through lectures and spirited discussions—that made us become professors in the first place. It’s extremely hard, but teachers have been doing it for generations.”

The comments are worth reading; I won’t summarize them here. One or two of those commenting had even read Carr’s article.

I was going to cite Leslie Johnston’s “digital is not to blame,” posted August 19, 2008 on Digital eccentric—but although Johnston cites the Wired essay, there’s no mention of Carr’s essay. Instead, Johnston focuses on Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation—and, although I’d originally intended to bring that into this discussion (as some essays deal with Carr’s article and Bauerlein’s book together), I’ve decided that’s a bad idea. I haven’t read Bauerlein’s book, and, frankly, when you have someone who says “dumbest” and then concedes that today’s students perform no worse than those of a previous generation (but says that’s bad, because they should do much better), I have no particular desire to. Bauerlein’s reasoning is even worse than NEA’s: You’re “the dumbest” if you’re not sufficiently smarter. I’m old enough to not be dumb enough to waste reading and thinking time on that, so I won’t deal with careful critiques of it. It’s fair to say that Johnston doesn’t care for generational generalizations—and, of course, neither do I.

We’ll end this section with notes from Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s July 22, 2008 post “Before I get old” on Academic librarian. Since we’re dealing with issues related to long text, and since Bivens-Tatum brings it up himself, I should note that the post is just under 1,500 words long—far too long for casual skimming, and many paragraphs beyond the “two to four paragraphs” some folks seem to find appropriate. (That this note comes nearly 11,000 words into an absurdly long Perspective probably doesn’t mean anything.)

B-T talks about gloom selling, Bauerlein’s book (and an earlier article) and Carr’s article. After noting that it’s possible today’s students—and the rest of us—are becoming “ignorant mouthbreathers panting for the next Facebook status update” and pointing out that “you are now reading a blog. Blogs may be hazardous to your mind,” B-T makes the same mistake I do when faced with the clear evidence that not all of today’s students and adults are contemporary versions of Emerson or Socrates.

I might be more gloomy if I couldn’t remember the state of my own self when I was eighteen. It pains me now to think how woefully ignorant I was, how few books I’d read, how little I knew about all the subjects that I now love knowing about. Wait, no it doesn’t…

How ignorant that eighteen-year-old was about all the subjects we claim are important! Perhaps most critics of the younger generation were always brilliant, erudite high achievers, even when young, like some of the wunderkind I see coming to Princeton. Not me. “Underachieving” was a label frequently applied to my meager efforts in school. Though now I have two college degrees in English literature, I’m not sure I ever managed to finish a book I was assigned to read in high school, and I vaguely remember sleeping through a number of my English classes… I was a lackadaisical student with little interest in learning what all my no doubt well intentioned teachers thought I should be learning. I wasn’t letting my schooling get in the way of my education…

After citing some ways he avoided deep reading and thinking (he read a lot, but he also watched “a ton” of TV, played guitar, went to parties, drank…) he notes:

Despite all this, I seem to have come out okay, or at least I think so. The child is not always father of the man, it seems. I made it through college and two graduate programs with excellent grades. I’ve got a pretty good job, a loving family, a decent house. Despite almost completely ignoring my studies until college, I’m what most people would probably consider well read…  I’m now more than twice the age of our incoming college students, yet I don’t feel particularly old. I know almost nothing about contemporary youth culture and I certainly wouldn’t celebrate it, but I can’t bring myself to fault teenagers for doing the things kids do.

Perhaps all of us really are getting stupider, and this blog post is longer than most of us can read. Somehow, I just can’t get that concerned about it… It might be that culture is always carried on by a remnant, and there are always bright and passionate people in every generation who manage to carry on and contribute to our knowledge of the world despite the odds.

Finally, referring to The Who’s “My Generation” (which eventually became a deeply ironic song with its lyric “hope I die before I get old”), he says:

Are we old when we can no longer understand these kids today? When we think it’s like they’re from another planet, as I recently heard a librarian say? Are we old when we judge the inadequacies of college students by our matured standards? When we no longer remember what unformed youths most of us were? When we actually believe that it’s more important for a teenager to know who the Speaker of the House is than to know the latest television shows? If that’s the case, I don’t want to get old.

That’s more a comment on Baeurlein and his ilk than on Carr’s age-neutral grump, but it’s hard to get away from the key points. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time on deep thought; most of us never have. Many of us were teenagers when we were teenagers. Some of us think more deeply at some ages than at others.

And those who blame their own inability to focus on internet tools are, to put it bluntly, fooling themselves. I have yet to see a computer without a shutdown capability. I’m thoroughly frustrated with Firefox’s current apparent notion that it should always be on (it’s sending a “crash report” almost every time I shut it down deliberately), but it’s still remarkably easy to logoff.

I’m guessing at least 200 of you are still reading, nearly 12,000 words in. Are you thinking about what you’re reading? Does this material require deep reading? I don’t know—but if you got here, you’re doing some “deep skimming” since there hasn’t been a subheading for 2,000 words.

The bottom line for this section? I don’t believe Google’s rewiring your brain or that the internet prevents deep reading or deep thought. If you lament an inability to read deeply and think deep thoughts, turn off the damn computer. Turn off the cell phone. To be sure, turn off the TV. Find a good chair with a good light and a good book. Read. Think. You can do it—and if you can’t, it’s absurd to blame it on Google, the internet or anybody else.

It’s Happened Again

The manila folder had eight groups of printouts I wanted to discuss in this Perspective, primarily first pages organized by subtopic.

I’ve gone through two of those eight groups—admittedly two of the three largest, but still.

I can’t—I won’t—make this a full-issue Perspective, for two reasons:

·         I want to finish the Retrospective series, and there are three more installments to do.

·         The book needs advance flogging, particularly since I’m making a Special Offer.

There’s also the likelihood that this is reaching a length where even devoted readers are getting bored. So this is it—for this installment. For your amusement and possibly my inspiration to return to this topic (probably not next month, but soon), here are the six other clusters:

·         Comments on post-literacy and aliteracy and the related “death of writing.”

·         Notes on ebooks and “the future of books”

·         A different set of notes on the future of reading and related topics

·         Slow reading

·         “The end” of book business “as we know it.”

·         A few other notes on literacy and book buying.

By the time I return to the topic and deal with these, some of those may disappear, others may be added, still others might wind up in some other C&I essay. For now, I’ve written too much about other people writing about reading. I hope some of you have read all the way through and found it worth thinking about, if not perhaps worthy of deep thought.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 12, Whole Issue 109, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

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