Thursday, January 10, 2008

Past as Prologue

This is the first entry of the National Book Foundation’s blog on the future of literary reading. The blog’s purpose is to gather information and ideas in various fields that are having, or will have, an impact on literary reading: the sociology of (literary) reading, the neuroscience of (literary) reading, the marketing of literary work, delivery systems, educational approaches, and innovative projects that cultivate a passion for literature. I hope that, in the future, guest bloggers with expertise in a variety of fields will post to the blog, by their own suggestion or my invitation. In the end, we should achieve a cross-disciplinary digest.

Perhaps the best way to begin this type of broad-based discussion is to note the ongoing lament over literary reading’s decline. In the late December issue of The New Yorker, writer Caleb Crain outlined the various studies to that effect—an interesting acknowledgment since the magazine is, after all, printed matter to be read—as part of a review of Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and The Squid, a book-length analysis of the neuroscience of reading, a field that seems to grow in inverse proportion to the rate of literary reading. Proust also appeared in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, making Marcel 2007’s trade-book neuroscience hero, perhaps besting even brain-man Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, ‘though not in sales.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when the U.S. economy seemed to give way to the Japanese model, commentators generally fell into two camps, called “declinists” and “revivalists”, ‘though one would be hard-pressed to find any revivalists for literary reading, except perhaps for the evangelistic digital crowd. Decreased literary reading has been a topic of conversation for decades, and Wolf notes the various studies that reach back to the beginning of the century. The sociology of reading also took center stage last year with the publication in English of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which most reviewers took lightly, but which had a lot to say about the prestige of reading à Pierre Bourdieu. Then there were the studies. The National Endowment for the Arts produced its second study on reading in four years, entitled To Read or Not To Read, which, despite its limitations, focused attention on the subject. Last year Sony introduced the Sony Reader, which they claim has sold lots. Amazon recently introduced the Kindle, which is oversubscribed, and rumors abound that Apple will soon emerge with the iReader, especially since lots of people are reading literature on their iPhones. All the major publishers are digitizing their front- and backlists, awaiting the holy day of the great e-reader. Important blogs like If:Book foster discussion of technology and reading. In the end, perhaps our idea of literary reading (and writing) will have to change as the technologists and neuroscientists weigh in. Perhaps this has already begun. The pages of Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions are visually structured like web pages.

Please comment on any or all of this, since ideas for future posts will be culled from the comments section.

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