Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whither Books and Reading (redux)

Robert McCrum, a book reviewer for The Observer in England, retired recently after ten years on the job. In this valedictory, he talks about trends over the past decade.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, which I mentioned in an earlier post, is an extraordinarily stimulating book, descriptive in its first two-thirds and prescriptive in its final third. Its first part relies to a great extent on French theory, which is understandable since Paulson is a Professor of French and the French are formidable describers of the structure of open systems. The prescriptive part is more tenuous and limited to higher education. When read in conjunction with James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Education and Literacy, one can see that the length and breadth of literary reading must begin at an early age, as reading specialists have always told us and which I infer from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. If, as Wolf suggests, early interaction with literary texts changes the brain’s physicality, does that neural condition create a desire to read, the way changed brain chemistry can create drug addiction? Or as I get from Gee, do video games create an interaction with semiotic systems that make it easy or even pleasurable to read certain types of literature to which we don’t expose young people in institutional settings? In other words, is literary reading addictive? Would a thirteen-year-old video game aficionado, because of the structure of his or her daily activity, respond better to a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Thomas Pynchon (leaving difficulties of language aside for the moment) than to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which an eighth grader is so often required to read? I understand the many pressures on teachers to assign books that will allow them to explain how novels are structured, but to deny that the pervasiveness of technology has changed the way young people read and learn is to play the ostrich. To insist that they follow the curriculum in place for at least four decades is to convince young readers to despise printed books.

If literary reading is on the decline, one way to stem that decline is to create a holistic approach along a spectrum of age-appropriate activities and to allow flexibility, which the balkanized literary culture will most likely not be able to do because of varied cultural, political, and social ideologies that have very little to do with inculcating a love of reading. If we leave the creation of readers to ideologues—and I use that word in its broadest sense—as we have done for decades, we will end up as a nation of non-readers. And I am not only talking about the easy-to-predict failure of Reading First and No Child Left Behind, but the results of the actions of boards of education, curriculum developers, parents, and even book salespeople.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Columbia Journalism Review Article

Click here to read Ezra Klein's jaunty take on the present and future of printed and electronic books in the Columbia Journalism Review (it's called "The Future of Reading", but that's a much more complicated topic than he tackles here). Nothing new (must we hear one more time about marginalia? Do we really need someone to tell us that one of the advantages of the electronic book is that it can be updated by subscription?), but in one short article he pulls together a lot of the discussion of content delivery systems--mainly the Amazon Kindle but a bit on e-books in general--and their possible impact.

While you're on-line, take a look at Sven Birkerts' article on literary blogging and reviewing from July, 2007: thoughtful, experienced, self-interested but fair.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Literary Scientific Method, Part One

Jonathan Gottschall’s article in the Boston Globe today suggests that literary studies become more like the sciences, which, he implies, “would set things right” with literary scholarship since it’s so beaten-down. The interesting aspect of his article is that he calls his proposal a “clear solution to the problem.” Professor Gottschall implies (or is this my inference?) that, there is one solution to the problem of literary studies in the United States, and it resides in forcing professional reading to prove its conclusions. I don’t doubt that this is one avenue for literary criticism to take, but it is only one.

There are, however, other thoughtful scholars who have written on the topic of the future of “literary culture,” a more useful term for literary studies since it encompasses the world and the manner in which books are read closely, by professionals and amateurs. William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, a follow-up to his intriguing The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, is well worth reading on the subject. Paulson is a Professor of French at the University of Michigan, and his basic idea is that literary scholars need to be trained in the broader culture, rather than limit themselves to the narrow study of literature. When read in conjunction with some of the essays in Morris Dickstein’s A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (he is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center) and other books that argue in favor of recognizing textual links to a broader culture, one may conclude that the way back to scholarly relevance in literature is to re-embed literature into the various disciplines, let’s say, to abolish literary studies as a separate course of action and encompass them in the study of the world, and as part of the world.

This would not entail returning humanistic study to the idea of a medieval trivium, but would employ the breadth of centuries of scholarship of science, social change, and twenty-first century technology to create intellectual links between the humanities and sciences, as Paulson (and Ong and Kernan and others) have shown us already exist in fact, if not in the mind of most of today’s scholars.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What I'm Reading

A quick post since I've been spending more time reading than writing. The controversy over "the new literacy" (traditional versus digital) has been enjoined. Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future decries the direction education is taking and backs it up with convincing statistics. Mark used to direct research at the National Endowment for the Arts but his main reputation was made as a professor of English and he is now at Emory University in Atlanta. His book approaches the question from a traditionalist perspective and anxiety about the future. His extrapolations may be valid and his predictions may come true--or not--but his warnings should be taken into account since the transition away from printed matter, fixed texts, and individual voices to e-literature, interactive creativity, and multiple authorship of mutable work is upon us.

On the other side is First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, which sees games as manifestations of literary composition beyond the narrow definition of their story. Between the two books lies the question of how knowledge affects the art of the literary. James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is more accessible to the traditional reader (like me) and is especially good on the connections video game players make with language and the idea of language.

And if you get the chance, check out Jane McGonigal's web site Avant Game ( with interesting articles about game theory, recommended by former Hyperion editor-in-chief Will Schwalbe.