The Death, and Life, of Reading Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

By Annoyed Librarian

What is one to think of a blog post entitled Technology is not the death of deep reading. Did anyone think it was?

It’s responding to what is supposedly a hopeful article from NPR about the return of serialized fiction, which was popular back in the nineteenth century. Returning to the nineteenth century isn’t much of an appeal for me, but more power to the publishers.

With serialized fiction, people can read a little bit at a time, which will, you know, get them into the habit of reading more books, which supposedly only a quarter of us Americans do.

Because, you see, “Technology is not the death of deep reading. By making a few small, conscious efforts to use technology as a means towards reading more, we can re-establish a reading culture in the digital age.”

Oh my, where is one to begin.

Maybe by asking just what is “deep reading?” Based on the article, it seems to just mean reading, as opposed to skimming, which isn’t reading anyway. It could also mean reading longer, perhaps, so reading significant portions of a book instead of a short, frivolous blog post like you’re doing right now.

It seems pretty obvious that technology hasn’t killed reading. Radio – which, you might remember, is technology – came along, and people kept reading. Television came along and people kept reading. Personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, they’re all the same. They came along, and people kept reading.

But if people are still reading, why all the fuss? How can one “re-establish a reading culture” when people still read?

Instead of misguided doomsaying, that goal is based on misguided nostalgia, if that’s not a redundancy. We can’t re-establish a reading culture because either we never had a reading culture or we still have one, depending on how you look at things.

I’m of a mind that we still have as much of a reading culture as we ever did. People still read. They read books and essays and various works of nonfiction. People read literary novels and genre fiction and scholarly books and all sorts of things.

Does the majority of the population read? No. And it never did.

Here’s where it depends on how you look at things. Did a larger percentage of people in the past read books, especially serialized fiction? Maybe, but if they did it’s because they didn’t have anything better to do.

In the heyday of serialized fiction, which was probably the Victorian era, reading was the only remotely passive form of entertainment for the home.

If people wanted music, they had to make it, which meant they had to know how to play instruments and be able to afford them. If they wanted theatrical entertainments, they had to go to theatres, and lots of people did. Theatre was actually popular.

But if they wanted to sit at home and be entertained by themselves, reading was an easy pastime.

With radio, television, and the Internet, the sorts of people who just want some easy passive entertainment don’t need books, so they don’t read them. It’s really that simple. We never had a reading culture. We had an entertainment culture where reading was the easiest form of entertainment.

It’s certain based on the evidence that reading isn’t for everyone. Most people don’t read, and most of them never did. Even if they’re technically capable of understanding strings of words in grammatical form, they don’t really read.

People might think I’m just being cynical, but look at the culture. Does it really seem likely that people who spend hours a day watching reality TV or the staccato of gibberish that is Fox News or CNN are capable of “deep reading”?

Deep reading has never been an activity for the masses. It’s always been the preserve of a minority. Serious readers are outliers in the culture and we always have been.

You might disagree. You might look around at the people you know, your family, your friends, your colleagues. Most of them might be readers. It might not be unusual for you to be reading two or three books at a time, piled up on your nightstand, maybe one or two tucked into a purse or pack when you’re out of the house.

You might love it that you can take hundreds of books with you on a Kindle, because otherwise when you travel you have to pack several books because you never know what you might want to read in a given moment and it’s important to have variety.

You might have books piled on shelves, or just be a heavy user of your local library. Either way, there’s always lots to read.

If that describes you and your family, friends, or colleagues, I want to break it to you as gently as I can. You’re freaks. The majority of people, if they knew your reading habits, would look at you and wonder why you spend so much time staring at words on a page instead of binge-watching television or playing Pokemon Go.

There will be no death of reading because there will always be freaks like us who enjoy immersing ourselves in the printed word, whether it’s the esoteric joy of working through a difficult poem or the more lighthearted and lightheaded joy of reading an adventure to see what happens next. The reading freaks will always be with us, and I take some comfort in that.