With defenders like these . . . or, Dickens on the books-vs-web debate

Motoko Rich’s NY Times essay about the old books-vs-web chestnut, “Online, R U Really Reading?,”
has generated a fair amount of attention.  While I don’t usually agree with Laurie Fendrich about a lot, her conclusion is correct:

A new elite — a new oligarchy, if you will — consisting of people who are equal masters of both Web and book reading will emerge.

The people who can move fluidly from Facebook, realpolitics.com and Twitter to War and Peace and The Origin of Species may end up being a small group, but they’ll be an elite and powerful group that will present a new and daunting challenge to everybody else.

What frustrated me about the article was the way it doesn’t seem to recognize the convergence of views between some defenders of reading and the (usually teenaged) skeptics.  Here’s one of the teenagers:

In a book, “they go through a lot of details that aren’t really needed,” Hunter said. “Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.”

To an English professor, such a perspective amounts to functional illiteracy.  After all, all those details–how the story is told, or the argument made–add up to style, to literary language, to the entire mode of knowing the world entailed by metaphor, irony, catachresis, and other tropes.  Even in nonliterary contexts, as Mark Bauerlein has pointed out, such a perspective reduces history to information, with the counterintuitive effect that–to adopt the student’s language, you actually get less of “what you need” online, because there’s less internalization.  (One of the Very Truly Awesome ironies of Bauerlein’s article, which is entitled “The Fate of History in a High-Tech Time” is that the URL renders it as, “the fate of history in a hi-tech time.”)

But it’s really hard to blame teenagers or students for all of this when you get so-called experts speaking so contemptuously of reading and print culture?  Here’s Rand J. Spiro:

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Honestly, this is just stupid.  No one reads “in a line,” except in the most literal or typographical of senses.  Everyone goes forward and backward through a book, either physically or in their mind, even when reading the most linear of arguments.  And what does it even mean to say that “the world doesn’t go in a line”?  The last time I checked, time’s arrow still only points in one direction.

What’s most frustrating about such arguments, however, is that they implicitly feed into the point of view that books have a lot of extraneous detail.  Whatever scaffolding the book provides, whatever analytic purchase it gives us, is just so much distraction from reality.  That’s no way to think of reading.

By way of a conclusion, here’s a famous passage from Dickens’s Oliver Twist, in which he defends his melodramatic approach to plot construction.  Like the critics of print culture, Dickens holds up “real life” as the ultimate aesthetic touchstone; however, unlike them, he further recognizes the ways “real life” is already aesthetic, and that the imaginative associations and projections we make when reading can help us to gain fresh insight into ourselves.  Such insights aren’t reducible to information, though they may, in the student’s words, be “what we need.”  Here’s Dickens:

It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song. We behold, with throbbing bosoms, the heroine in the grasp of a proud and ruthless baron: her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and just as our expectations are wrought up to the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall of the castle; where a grey-headed seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals, who are free of all sorts of places, from church vaults to palaces, and roam about in company, carolling perpetually.

Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. The actors in the mimic life of the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of passion or feeling, which, presented before the eyes of mere spectators, are at once condemned as outrageous and preposterous.

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