I know I have belabored this poor old horse before, but here from Digital Book World is another speculation on whether e-books have changed the way we read. Daniel Berkowitz assures us “It’s clear that reading does not hold the overall importance in today’s society that it did for previous generations” and in one way this may be true, but it’s certainly not the way he means.
Today many, many more people are reading than ever did in the past. The kind of reading material is what has changed: less novels and newspapers; more e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts. So much of what we read now isn’t read for its cultural significance, but for its communicative function. This is the only (trivial) sense in which he’s right. What he really means though is that people are just reading and valuing less “good books” than in the past. Some rather stultifying research could be done on this subject, but naturally I, like all commentators, find it more fun just to speculate. So, I’d bet that there was probably more “serious” reading going on nowadays than in the past. My first, and probably strongest, argument is the demographic one: there are just more people. Secondly, more of these more people are getting a university education. In the olden days books were too expensive for all but the wealthy: now the classics can be had for free. In the olden days, most workers were too tired when they got home to read, even by candle-light.
Of course maybe that’s not what Mr Berkowitz is claiming. Maybe he’s focussing on cultural significance. Possibly Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt say, considered literature a sacred trust, a matter of life or death, and wrote about the subject in important ways. We read them and admire the “importance” reading had for them. Then there’s Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson: obviously engaging seriously with important literature. We cannot have the advantage today of reading just the “great critics” of the modern world because we don’t know who they are. But we can perhaps assume that there are some of them out there just waiting for the passage of time to confirm their elevated status. God knows there must be more critical prose being written now than ever before. We may snobbishly think that any book review written in a blog cannot be serious; but there are immense numbers of such places and immense volumes of writing about the immense number of books being published (many, many more than at any other time in history). It just seems inherently unlikely to me that it’s all rubbish. Just as in Coleridge’s or Emerson’s day most writing about literature was dull and forgettable (and has duly been forgotten), so no doubt is most of today’s writing. But until it’s been winnowed we can’t tell how much good grain there is there among the chaff. Human nature being a fairly constant thing, I would guess that we can assume the proportion is pretty much as it was in the past.
Mr Berkowitz also tells us “Not as many people read as before, and for many people who do in fact read, they have neither the desire nor the time to read something lengthy, or to waste any time reading a book they may ultimately put down unfinished.” But just look at Jellybooks’ numbers (previous post): lots of people, many of them seemingly eager to put down a book unfinished. At Linked In, David Sable tells us that 28% of Americans admit they didn’t read a book in the past year. This of course means (or at least implies) that something like 72% of them did. And 72% of 320,000,000 is actually a rather large number. The population of America has doubled since World War II — that’s a whole lot of reading. And by some law of averages some of that reading will be serious, important, and sustained.