When any writer takes on the subject of reading in the digital age, he must understand that this is not new territory. The digital age is aging, and the landscape shifts like sand on the beach at high tide. To me, there is no better book about the state of reading right now than Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies (Faber & Faber, 2006). However, there is always more to be said, and in that spirit, Andrew Piper takes a crack at 21st century reading in his 2012 entry, Book Was There: Reading In Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
From the start, Piper assures us that the current so-called crisis in reading is nothing new. It is true: reading books has withstood the challenge of movies, television, audio books, and e-readers, yet Bowker.com reports that more than three million hard copy books were published in 2010. The big change in that statistic is the rise of print-on-demand titles, which accounted for approximately two million of those books. Piper cannot imagine a world without reading, however, how we read may be continuing to morph. His children now read on digital screens, and he worries that upcoming generations of new readers may never know what it is like to “sit in a room of their own and read a book.” He means, of course, a physical book. The form we know as book, also called the codex, originated millennia ago and spread with the rise of Christianity. It is doubtful books will ever be replaced by iPads, Nooks, and Kindles, although the digital and the physical might exist for many more years side-by-side.
If anything, books might become collectors’ editions with the average reader and student utilizing the digitized version because it will be easier to transport. No more aching backs from overstuffed backpacks and satchels filled with heavy textbooks. A number of readers still love engaging with a book, the feel and smell of print and ink which comes with the ability to mark up the pages, leave notes in the margins, and highlight, although many of these attributes are now permissible with e-readers.
Piper comes from the generation that lived at ground zero of the computer explosion. He remembers getting the earliest desktop computer models, and learning to program them and play the standard pong games on the screen. He simultaneously lived in both worlds—the book and the screen, and he has an interesting take on the development of reading in pixels rather than pages. He includes in every chapter photographs and artistic expressions of his research into the human relationship with text, and although these are black and white and often grainy images, they enhance his ideas and create a visual anchor. Piper comes down decidedly on the side of books even with his recognition of the power and manipulative capability of the screen. “To hold on to books is to hold on to time,” he writes, and “Books are how we speak with the distant and the dead.” These are great sound bites for those of us who love the tome, but Piper also cautions that “Possessing books, holding on to books, can keep us from life.”
What I liked most about Piper’s writing here is that he not only addresses the physicality of reading—the book versus the e-reader—but also how the act of reading has transfigured and fluidly morphed over the years, especially since the coming of the digital age. In the classroom, teachers see this most clearly. Students do not read in-depth, but tend to skim across the pages. They are used to getting the gist of what is written, but miss the nuances and details. Why does this happen? Piper explores this in several chapters. He also discusses the narcissism inherent in social media, and how this affects readers. With the rise of texting and emails, Piper bemoans the fact that we are always on, and that people expect nearly instantaneous responses to their queries and communication. Parents expect to access up-to-the-minute grades for their children, and they want teachers to respond immediately to questions. Piper says that all of this leads to fatigue as “one of the basic conditions of the digital.” He writes that “When we look at screens we become prematurely tired, the optical equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome.” Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have led us back to an age “before the invention of privacy,” he says. And in evaluating how the digital age has impacted recent generations of readers, we see an overabundance of both narcissism and openness that has often been dangerous. Children today live in a world “that has largely given up on anonymity.” He goes on to say that “Facebook presupposes an inherent presence of another, that there is no I without You, and that, too, is ethically profound.”
The skimming culture of reading could have long term effects on children today. Piper believes “We are breeding generations of distracted readers, people who simply cannot pay attention long enough to finish a book.” He tells us of publishers who now dream of including soundtracks and moving images to text, so readers will be able to hear music the characters in the novel access, and see live images of streets and cities where characters walk and interact. This could actually lead to some exciting advances in bringing a novel to life, but reading was never about just images and music clips. Excellent writers bring the reader into the world through imagination, and there is something wholly engaging and rich about reader and writer working together to bring the world of the book to life. When does the reading experience become watching television? Viewers do none of the heavy lifting in front of the TV or in the movie house. The director, camera operator, producers, indeed a small army of people bring the world to life while the viewer simply watches. I believe we will lose quite a lot if reading a book becomes more of a voyeuristic experience rather than a collaborative imagining by reader and writer.
In his final chapter, “Letting Go Of The Book,” Piper argues that “We may need to put down the book from time to time, but we should make sure not to let the computer become the new book.” Too many times in education, I have heard principals and administrators, technology proponents and digital “visionaries,” proclaim the death of old school staples like textbooks, white boards, lectures, and discussions. This is the age of blogs, tweets, Smart Boards, PowerPoint slides, and Skype. Technology is a tool, an exciting group of methodologies to communicate a lesson to a class. However, the computer is not the end of everything, most especially the book. People mock the rise of Harry Potter, but to an English teacher, there was something immensely satisfying about seeing kids in restaurants, at bus stops, in doctors’ offices immersed in thick books with a distinctive wizard on the cover. Yes, book stores have disappeared, and it may be more convenient to carry one iPad with hundreds of books loaded on its hard drive than hauling around five pound novels, but many of us, old and young, still love the feel of books. Andrew Piper adds nothing to this conclusion of mine; he simply reaffirms what we know, often in dry academic writing. But it is quite satisfying to read his work on old fashioned paper in ink. I finished his book on a rainy, late-winter day, the kind of day perfectly suited to reading a good book by the fire while seated in a cozy sofa chair. Curling up with a tablet screen just wouldn’t be the same.