How Tech Is Making Us More Aware of the Ways We Read

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Recent years have seen an explosion of reading memoirs, the result of a collective recognition that this age-old habit is undergoing profound change.

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Accounts of how people's lives have been changed by reading are quite old: that's really what Augustine's Confessions is all about, though that's rarely recognized. The same can be said for Jean-Paul Sartre's autobiographical The Words and Richard Rodriguez's beautiful Hunger of Memory; but I think the reader's memoir as a distinctive contemporary genre got started with Lynn Sharon Schwartz's Ruined by Reading in 1996. Since then, the genre has gotten far more prominent. Francis Spufford's wonderfully titled The Child that Books Built is an elegant example, and now the estimable Marilynne Robinson is about to release a book of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books. A number of British writers have produced a lovely book of mostly memoirish essays called Stop What You're Doing and Read This! There are many others -- heck, I even wrote my own brief narrative of my history as a reader.

All this memorial activity suggests that we're getting collectively thoughtful about the experience of reading, and I can't help thinking that such reflectiveness is largely a result of changing technologies of reading. Those of us who were raised on books think more about how that experience has shaped us because we see other people now being raised on different media. Imagining how children will experience reading when they do it on touch-sensitive tablets or on e-readers whose "pages" are turned by the pushing of buttons, we think back to our own early history. We re-tell our stories to ourselves, seeing significances that were oblivious to us before. 

To make a McLuhanesque point, when we embrace a new medium, or new technology, we begin the process of understanding the one it replaces or supplants. We didn't really grasp what theatrical moviegoing is like until it became common to watch movies at home, where we can move about, where we can pause the movie whenever we wish. What was truly distinctive about humans' relations with horses didn't emerge until people began traveling by train and then automobile.

Similarly, we began to be truly reflective about reading -- people started writing books about its history, scholars banded together to study it -- when it seemed that television would render reading obsolete. And now that reading is happening in new media, we reflect on the long history of the codex.

But while people may be getting quite elegiac about paper books -- or angry about their diminished role -- reading itself doesn't seem to be on the wane. In general, people read more now than they ever have, though what they read is constantly changing. It seems to me that all these memoirs by readers have the effect of encouraging us to cherish an experience that is altering but not going away -- that may, in fact, be entering a kind of Golden Age. That's my hope.


Image: ethermoon/Flickr.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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