Old Jonathan Edwards wrote, “It has all along been God’s manner to open new scenes, and to bring forth to view things new and wonderful.” These scenes are the narrative method of the Bible, which assumes a steady march of history, the continuous unfolding of significant event, from the primordial quarrel of two brothers in a field to supper with a stranger at Emmaus. There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes. This assumption is by no means inevitable. Most cultures have written about demigods and kings and heroes. Whatever the deeper reasons for the realist fascination with the ordinary, it is generous even when it is cruel, simply in the fact of looking as directly as it can at people as they are and insisting that insensitivity or banality matters. The Old Testament prophets did this, too.
Certainly, the increasing quality of young adult books is a draw. But there are exceptional videogames, there are exceptional websites and exceptional television programs to fight for a teenager’s attention. So why are they still reading?
I think there is another reason why young adult novels are doing well, and it is less easy gauge. As of yet, there are no real studies determining this, but anecdotally, we all relate to it. A book is an opportunity to get “off the grid.” We read to break free of their digital tether. To experience what life was like before the net. To disconnect. To finally feel alone.
A book holds your hand in solitude and says, here you are alone in your room and everything is alright. You don’t need to call a friend or Twitter something. The world is still turning. If you go for a forty minute walk without your mobile, don’t worry, you’re not going to miss anything.
For much of my post-college reading life, I‘ve been interested in the experience of shifting between texts, in particular the way that, for a short spell, the text I shift to inhabits the same mental space as the one I’ve just left, so that the second book feels like an increasingly improbable continuation of the previous narrative. Say you’re reading Great Expectations and just as your expectations begin to flag, you switch volumes and the scenery becomes more agreeable, the prose less stultifying, the seedy incidental characters more plausibly named, till at last you give in to reality and admit that you’ve abandoned Dickens for Graham Greene. Better yet, you can shift genres entirely. Sociological surveys may suddenly, with a little sleight of hand, contain sonnets.
What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.
This is a fantastic idea, which makes me wish I were in Boulder to be part of it. I like the idea of this kind of slow and detailed “reading”: to take a work of art & to lavish time on it. It seems, in our age of media overload, almost luxurious: this idea of devoting so much time to one text. In eight hours, we can see four movies. To give that much time to one seems decadent. But maybe this is what works of art deserve; maybe this is how we should be reading. The problem of availability is something that seems increasingly to have been solved. To view or to read well is another kind of problem. In the past, when there was an economy based on scarcity, this might not have been as much of an issue: whatever was available was watched or read. Now we need to think about how we want to watch: we need to become better readers.
One emotion we focus on in particular is awe. Stimuli that open the mind to vast and often unconsidered possibilities can inspire awe, a unique human emotion that expands a reader’s frame of reference (Keltner and Haidt 2003). Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self (Haidt 2006). It occurs when two conditions are met (Keltner and Haidt 2003). First, people experience something vast: either physically vast such as the grand canyon, conceptually vast such as a grand theory or finding, or socially vast such as fame or power. Second, the vast experience cannot be accommodated by existing mental structures. Intellectual epiphanies, natural wonders, and great works of art can all make people feel a sense of awe (Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007). Similarly, news stories about a treatment that may cure AIDS or a hockey goalie who continues to play even with brain cancer may both inspire some level of awe.
Awe may be linked to social transmission for a number of reasons. First, awe encourages people to connect with others and spread the word. People who have had epiphanies through drug use or religious experiences, for example, seem to have a deep need to talk about them or proselytize (James 1902; Keltner and Haidt 2003). Other types of awe-inducing experiences may activate the same psychological mechanisms evoked by epiphanies. Second, awe inducing stimuli also tend to be entertaining, inspiring, and contain a great deal of information. Each one of these aspect in itself is a reason that people may share things. Third, because awe-inducing experiences are characterized by the accommodation of existing mental structures, they should be particularly likely to drive people to talk to others to understand how they feel (Rime, Mesquita, Philippot, and Boca 1991). Finally, awe-inducing experiences encourage people to look beyond themselves and deepen connections to the broader social world (Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007). All of these factors suggest that awe should lead people to want to share.
There are ways around this: we can, for example, see it as a moral duty to buy books by authors who are still alive and who deserve money new, rather than used. We could buy books directly from authors whenever possible so that they’re getting a more just cut. We need to re-conceptualize how we think about exchange and consumption. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift presents one such way forward: thinking about artistic creation as something outside the economic. But that requires us to think different both as producers and consumers: maybe that’s what the Internet is trying to tell us.
[T]he funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. ... PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that’s not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do. “Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read,” Grant says. “You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.”
Linda Simensky, vice president for children’s programming at PBS, says that when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: “How do we get kids to read books?” ... Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.
Then there are the classification errors. William Dwight Whitney’s 1891 Century Dictionary is classified as “Family & Relationships,” along with Mencken’s The American Language. A French edition of Hamlet and a Japanese edition of Madame Bovary both classified as “Antiques & Collectibles.” An edition of Moby Dick is classed under “Computers”: a biography of Mae West classified as “Religion”; The Cat Lover’s Book of Fascinating Facts falls under “Technology & Engineering.” A 1975 reprint of a classic topology text is “Didactic Poetry”; the medievalist journal Speculum is classified “Health & Fitness.”
Here we have the paradox, since in giving up control we somehow gain it, by being brought in contact with ourselves. “My experience,” William James once observed, “is what I agree to attend to” — a line Winifred Gallagher uses as the epigraph of “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” (Penguin Press: 244 pp., $25.95). In Gallagher’s analysis, attention is a lens through which to consider not just identity but desire. Who do we want to be, she asks, and how do we go about that process of becoming in a world of endless options, distractions, possibilities?
These are elementary questions, and for me, they cycle back to reading, to the focus it requires. When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, my grandmother used to get mad at me for attending family functions with a book. Back then, if I’d had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged. All these years later, I find myself in a not-dissimilar position, in which reading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.
Reading is a very complex art - the hastiest examination of our sensations as a reader will show us that much. And our duties as readers are many and various. But perhaps it may be said that our first duty to a book is that one should read it for the first time as if one were writing it.
One should begin by sitting in the dock with the criminal, not by mounting the bench to sit among the Judges. One should be an accomplice with the writer in his act, whether good or bad, of creation. For each of these books, however it may differ in kind and quality, is an attempt to make something. And our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours. We must allow Defoe to be Defoe and Jane Austen to be Jane Austen as freely as we allow the tiger to have his fur and the tortoise to have his shell. And this is very difficult. For it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings Heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision.
On sites such as Amazon and iTunes, homophily is a selling point: it’s the basis for “collaborative filtering”, whereby you’re recommended books and music on the basis of what others who made the same purchase - people like you - also enjoyed.
The unspoken assumption here is that you know what you like - that satisfying your existing preferences, and maybe expanding them a little around the edges, is the path to fulfillment. But if happiness research has taught us anything, it’s that we’re terrible at predicting what will bring us pleasure. Might we end up happier by exposing ourselves more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people and things we don’t think we’d like?
You don’t need technology to do that, but then again, technology needn’t be the enemy: Facebook could easily offer a list of the People You’re Least Likely To Know; imagine what that could do for cross-cultural understanding. And I love the Unsuggester, a feature of the books site LibraryThing.com: enter a book you’ve recently read, and it’ll provide a list of titles least likely to appear alongside it on other people’s bookshelves. Tell it you’re a fan of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and it’ll suggest you read Confessions Of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. And maybe you should.
Today language abandoned me. I could not find the word for a simple object—a commonplace familiar furnishing. For an instant, I stared into a void. Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. Later, I made an inventory of the room—a naming of parts: bed, chair, table, picture, vase, cupboard, window, curtain. Curtain. And I breathed again.
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes—our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorized Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.
A Romantic, says Nietzsche, is someone who always wants to be elsewhere. If that’s so, then the children of the Internet are Romantics, for they perpetually wish to be someplace else, and the laptop reliably helps take them there — if only in imagination. The e-mailer, the instant messenger, the Web browser are all dispersing their energies and interests outward, away from the present, the here and now. The Internet user is constantly connecting with people and institutions far away, creating surrogate communities that displace the potential community at hand.
Then too, booking by computer has made travel easier and, by eliminating a certain number of middlemen, kept it reasonably cheap. So there’s an inducement to take off physically as well. The Internet is perhaps the most centrifugal technology ever devised. The classroom, where you sit down in one space at one time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated. What’s at a premium now is movement, making connections, getting all the circuitry fizzing and popping.
For students now, life is elsewhere. Classes matter to them, but classes are just part of an ever-enlarging web of activities and diversions. Students now seek to master their work — not to be taken over by it and consumed. They want to dispatch it, do it well and quickly, then get on to the many other things that interest them. For my students live in the future and not the present; they live with their prospects for success and pleasure. They dwell in possibility.
When you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”
In this sense it is a metaphor for the experience of reading in the twenty-first century. Like so many things we idolize today, it is extraordinarily convenient, technologically sophisticated, consumption-oriented, sterile, and distracting. The Kindle also encourages a kind of utopianism about instant gratification, and a confusion of needs and wants. Do we really need Dickens on demand? Part of the gratification for first readers of Dickens was rooted in the very anticipation they felt waiting for the next installment of his serialized novels—as illustrated by the story of Americans lining up at the docks in New York to learn the fate of Little Nell. The wait served a purpose: in the interval between finishing one installment and getting the next, readers had time to think about the characters and ponder their motives and actions. They had time to connect to the story.