16 December 2009

The Future of Reading and The Empire of the Word

I’ve been invited once again to participate on this evening’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin (20:00 on TVO). The conversation tonight will be on The Future of Reading, the last segment of TVO’s highly recommended, four-part, documentary series, The Empire of the Word. As I’ve watched the first three episodes, I’ve been pondering the larger, and perhaps more fundamental question, why do we read? What is the role that reading plays in our culture that may transcend particular technological advances; therefore, what is the future of reading?

There is the old cliché of an infinite number of monkeys set to bang on an infinite number of typewriters – Gutenbergian versions of word processing software – producing all the works of Shakespeare. (I suppose it would be a somewhat less romantic gedankenexperiment to observe that they would also produce every blog post, Facebook status update, Twitter tweet, and—well, LOLcats is pretty passé now, isn’t it?) But in that trite postulate lies a fundamental truth: writing produces worlds. Written language provides a civilization the ability to create any number of possible existences, be they feasible for physical incarnation or not. Descartes has nothing on anyone who is literate: the French philosopher and mathematician thought and therefore he was. A writer thinks and writes and therefore a world as fantastical or as real as one would care to know is born, lives, and occupies not a physical space, but the space of our minds.

And those whose minds are inhabited by the creations of any number of writers have the opportunity to cast themselves into those realms. Readers have the ability to contextualize their lived experiences in the physical and social worlds with respect to these sometimes-fictional-and-sometimes-not creations, and thereby make meaning of their unique and respective existences. It is from that meaning that the Self is created as an inhabitant of the world provided by the writer. The writer may play Zeus in being lord over the worlds s/he brings into existence; it is the reader who fills the role of Prometheus, filling it with life and igniting that world with the fire of insight, reflection, and thought.

That reading in contemporary North American culture has become, variously, a banal chore, the surfing of snippets of information, or a cargo-cult fetish – witness the explosion of sales for Get a Grip on Physics when it was discovered in the rear seat of Tiger Wood’s SUV – is not to be blamed directly on technological advances like the World Wide Web, Google, Kindle, or iAnything. I cast my accusing eye towards school curricula and unmindful pedagogues who seem to have collectively devised a cynically calculated method for inculcating youth with a life-long aversion to instrumental reading through their insipid content tests, involving who-said-what-to-whom-in-which-scene. That many people today have lost the art of reading in depth is not surprising given the nearly two decades of training in reading to find a specific answer desired by an authority figure.

So what of the future of reading? I (and many others) have said that the private mind – and hence, a sense of self that is distinct and individual, that is, one’s identity – emerged from the ability to read silently, to take a world created by another and inhabit it, thereby gaining a better understanding and appreciation of one’s place in the society we all share. But in today’s ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world, identity is collaboratively constructed. We each contribute artefacts and contexts to each other through a variety of interconnected means. A person’s identity emerges from amidst this collection of diverse artefacts and contexts. To borrow from Bernie Hogan, we become, in a sense, curators of our Self—multiple Selves, actually, depending on the locale, the contexts, and the particular artefacts that we care to display. If reading has always been about recreating the writer’s world and literally/literarily making it our own, then the roles and practices of contemporary writers and readers must necessarily change. Writing and reading, I think, become collaborative endeavours. Thus, the distinction between the two roles blurs somewhat, realizing James Joyce’s perhaps not-so-rhetorical query from Finnegans Wake, “my consumers are they not my producers?”

A future writer will indeed appear to be more like a producer, creating environments of engagement among multiple future-readers who participate with the writer in constructing, inhabiting, and bringing meaning to both fantastical and more prosaic experiences. This means that new and different skills will have to be added to our educational curricula. No longer will variations on See Dick Run; Run Dick Run (with its obligatory and corresponding content test—What Did Dick Do?) be sufficient for contemporary schools. Instead, students will need to learn how to create environments of engagement among multiple people who each bring multiple contexts grounded in diverse histories, cultures, and life experiences. The budding “wreader” will learn to facilitate reflexivity among her/his audience so that each participant in the book-of-the-future will see, experience, and understand their piece of the world-in-relation with perhaps just a little more clarity than before.

The book itself has been obsolesced as an instrumental medium. Instead, it becomes an aesthetic objet d’art, an academic talisman, an artefact in contemporary fetish rituals presided over by the likes of Oprah, Harry Potter, or Tiger at Twilight. Writers, editors, and publishers become, to various degrees, creators of experiential environments in the context of what literacy has always been when considered relative to individual and collective identity. The reader likewise continues, not merely as consumer, but as collaborative producer of Self and the World that Self inhabits.

The Agenda with Steve Paikin airs this evening at 20:00 on TVO. The full video of the conversation is posted on the episode page.

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