Digital technology is actually fuelling a love of literatureby Frank Furedi / October 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Since the 1950s discussions on the future of reading frequently draw on the rhetoric of crisis. With the emergence of the internet the narrative of anxiety that dominates this discussion has acquired an increasingly pessimistic dimension. Technophobes frequently contend that the arrival of digital media has reduced attention spans, leading to despair about the “end of the book” and the “death of the reader.” Some experts go so far as to insist that those immersed in online experience risk losing the power of concentration necessary for serious reading.
Historically the debate around reading has been disassociated from reality. So when in 1956 the American weekly, the Saturday Review asked “who is to blame” for the “plight of contemporary reading” there was little public recognition of the fact that sales of books were flourishing, and that despite the advent of television, reading remained a popular past time. A similar pattern is at work today. Time and again, digital technology is blamed for declining standards of literacy. Yet surveys conducted indicate that many intensive users of the new media—particularly of the internet—read more than the average person.
What our study of the history of reading suggests is that almost every complaint hurled at digital technology—“too much information,” “loss of attention span,” “constant distraction,” “it is addictive”—are claims that were also made in relation to the reading of manuscripts and printed texts during the past 2,000 years. Moreover, a concern with a “crisis” of literacy long preceded the ascendancy of digital technology.
So what are we to make of the many references to a “crisis of literacy” in our time? Whatever the problems confronting society today one of them is not the availability of powerful and exciting new technologies of communication, but an uncertainty about what to communicate. Disenchantment with the status of literacy is today closely linked to the difficulty that contemporary culture has in giving meaning to content and human experience. Blaming the internet evades attention from what is a fundamental cultural problem: the failure to endow reading with cultural authority.
Reading comes into its own when what people read matters to them. Writing and reading are not simply techniques of communication, and reading is not purely a skill that allows individuals to decode a text. Readers gain meaning from their experience through engaging with the content, and how people read is influenced by the wider cultural attitudes towards literacy. When what people read matters they have little problem acquiring literacy skills. Most people in the 19th century learned to read on their own or with the help of friends and family members. Throughout most of history learning to read was not considered difficult. The fact that today, even with the help of modern pedagogy, the teaching of reading is perceived as challenging has little to do with the decoding of text. It expresses a statement about the difficulty we have in giving meaning to the content of what’s read.
In principle society is committed to restoring the cultural authority of literacy. Almost every day a new literacy initiative is launched and there have never been so many literary festivals as there are today. Yet despite the proliferation of these worthy initiatives, it appears that society struggles to find a language through which it can express the virtue of reading. Literacy advocates often adopt the approach of public health campaigners to gain the attention of would-be readers, arguing, for example, that reading serves as a useful stress-relieving therapy. Well-meaning advocates of reading find it difficult to justify their cause in a language that draws attention to its transformative impact on readers. Their promotional material rarely adopts the humanist approach that regards reading as value in and of itself; instead, they endorse literacy as a useful skill that provides the reader with important social and economic benefits.
Yet unless educators can cultivate a love of reading among young people, literacy will be perceived as simply one skill among many. A recent report by the OECD indicated that a substantial proportion of UK graduates have failed to achieve what it described as “high-level literacy skills.” The decoupling of a culture of reading from higher education must be a contributing factor.
Overcoming the difficulty our culture has in developing a language for communicating and affirming a love of reading is a key challenge facing society. The fundamental problem confronting society today is not that books have become marginalised and will soon disappear. Nor does the digital media represent a threat to reading: a significant proportion of serious readers of books are also actively engaged with the internet. People read for enjoyment on Kindles and e-books are widely used by academic libraries, providing greater access to students. Yet they do so in circumstances where we struggle to give meaning to the 21st-century experience of reading.
Frank Furedi’s new book Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter is published by Bloomsbury