Monday, June 7, 2010

Reading in a Digital Age

While taking a train recently, I read "Reading in a Digital Age" by Sven Birkerts in the Spring 2010 issue of The American Scholar. I started reading it anticipating some sort of discussion about reading in a world of e-readers, which turns out to not be the topic at hand. More close to the actual topic, however, is the idea of reading in a world with the option of reading online. The overarching question at hand: how does traditional, paper-based reading fit into this new age of digital reading?

Below you'll find some passages from the article that I found particularly thought-provoking (in bold), followed by my own reflections and questions.

"Our brains have become particularly adapted to creating coherent, gap-free stories.... This propensity for narrative creation is part of what predisposes us humans to religious thought" (Gary Greensberg).

You know how there are generally two camps of people, those who can accept some degree of the unknown and those who cannot? Seems our brains like to fill in the gaps in what we can see and understand in our world. Which, as Greensberg points out, can describe aspects of religious thought in which humans create ways of making sense of a some-details-left-out story. This disposition can also give some bearing upon why we find books, movies, stories, &c. that aren't self-consistent to be very frustrating. Also might explain fan fiction--we want to fill the gap between what was written and what we think should be an ultimate event.

"This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is now, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes--that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself."

I once had a terrific teacher who tried to illustrate to his students that good literature--truly good literature--fulfills two criteria: 1) it is entertaining, and b) it has a universal theme. In other words, truly good literature should be timeless because it always has something to say about the world in which we live; readers can always respond to something in the work, regardless of when or where they may live. Extrapolating this argument one degree further, good literature must be relatable: we must see ourselves and those around us in a work. Good literature promotes self-reflection. That seems right. Right?

We are seeing right now "the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking--their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. I mean, in my shorthand, intransitive thinking. Contemplation. Thinking for it's own sake."

Here's some actual consideration about how the meaning and physical act of reading has changed in this digital arena. When we have a physical book, a novel, &c., we have a piece of sustained writing. That is to say that a physical book tends to have its own sustained little world, its abstract space in which the reader interacts with the ideas on the page. Reading digitally, e.g. on the internet, seems to lack that sustained world. After all, isn't full text searching and linkability one of the "benefits" of digital reading? The result of jumping from smaller text to smaller text to dictionary to related topic, although useful in its own ways, is the lack of a sustained place for thinking about the actual piece of writing. We go straight to what we want to read, to know, and don't so much consider the rest. In looking for the specific lighthouse on the horizon, as it were, we miss the landscape as a whole. Also, it would seem that the more we interact with the platform of reading, the less we actually interact with what is written. With no sustained world to consider, we're basically idea nomads.

"The question comes up for me insistently: Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am 'in' the novel, of course, to the degree that it involves me. I may be absorbed, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me."

I just thought that this passage asks an interesting question of all readers. Where are you when you read? Where is your mind? Does the space you occupy while reading change depending upon what you are reading?

"Still, [a character in a book] can only get so close [or do so much]--he is constrained by the limits of technology, and, necessarily, by visual exteriority. The novelist can complete the action, moving right through the dormer window, and then, if he has set it up thus, into the minds of any of the characters he has found/created there."

Another interesting idea to consider about reading: characters are limited, but authors are omnipotent. A character is restrained to the world in which his author has placed him, while the author has fully license to mess with the parameters at any time and in any way. My question: do these limits, or lack thereof, hold up in digital reading? Because, arguably, in traditional reading, the reader is even more limited than the characters: the reader must go exactly where the author dictates, can have absolutely no other insights than those explicitly written. Is this so with digital reading? Or does the reader somehow become the one with the power?

"The reader adjusts to the author, not vice versa, and sometimes that adjustment feels too difficult. The triple-decker [three-volume novel] was, I'm theorizing, synchronous with the basic heart rate of its readers, and is now no longer so."

I mostly just like this passage because it speaks to the general changeability of writing. Those triple-deckers or three-volume novels were once so popular, but now we don't read them quite so much (although we still read Austen!). The attention span, or the reality, or something of the reader has changed over time, allowing us to better relate to certain styles than others. What does this mean for books in general when readers may be less and less willing to adjust themselves?

"Reading in a Digital Age" really was a fantastic article in terms of provoking interesting considerations. If you found any of these ideas stimulating, you should definitely check it out. Also, feel free to sound off in the comments.

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