Daily Archives: June 21, 2010

Reading: Literacy and the Economy, Brain and Educational Benefits, E-books and Paper Books

Reading:  Who will read? What are the benefits of reading? How will texts be dispersed and acquired? These aspects of reading are much discussed: the New Yorker and Fortune both recently had long articles on e-books, and you can’t go to a writers’ and readers’ gathering these days without somebody asking about them.

I was at three related events recently: the Future of Reading conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology, on June 9, Idea City in Toronto, on June 17, and the meeting of the International Short Story in English: The Border as Fiction, on June 19. Here were some of the things I and others said about reading:

Literacy and the economy: You have to be literate to use the Internet. Literacy is also required in order to lead an “economic life,” and the cellphone and the Internet are facilitating increased economic possibilities, especially for women (you don’t have to leave your house) and especially in developing countries (you don’t need expensive land lines and Point of Sale hookups to do mobile banking and also point of sale transactions via your phone). Online security is still however an issue.

As stated at Davos in February, women are the fastest-growing economic group on the planet. With increased literacy and access to information and the possibility of an “economic life” – facilitated through microfinance plans such as the Grameen Bank – the birth rate and infant mortality rate both go down, making it increasingly possible for families once locked into poverty to extricate themselves, as more family resources can be devoted to children, and more children can survive to benefit. (As the carrying power of the earth re: the human race has probably already been exceeded, and as millions are now  dying of malnutrition, starvation, pollution, and inadequate water supplies, this imbalance is a problem that will either have to be solved by us or that will be “solved” by physics, chemistry, and resource wars, in very unpleasant ways – as financial journalist Diane Francis pointed out at Idea City, while regaling us with tales of the death threats she had received for writing about this subject.)

Brain benefits, educational gains:

Reading, unlike talking, doesn’t come with a built-in human program activated simply by witnessing others doing it. It has to be learned.  Everything we do is built on a pre-existing brain “platform,” and the platform for reading appears to be the one for object recognition – such as—for instance – predators, prey, and food items. (Devour any books lately? Been devoured by them?)

Reading actually makes you smarter, as neurological activity during the act of reading increases, and the connections are both wide and deep. For a book that summarizes what we know so far, see Proust and the Squid, by  Maryanne Wolf.                                         .

We are told that the single best thing you can do for your child’s future success is to have books in the house. Having a school library with a librarian in it increases the average score by 20%, even if no other change in the school is made. Schools are now trying to put back these facilities, that were dumped several decades ago as a “frill.”

Reading and E-books:

Reading is not decreasing, as feared – in fact it’s increasing, as one must be able to read in order to use the Internet – but it’s being done in different ways.

I speculate that the availability of e-books is actually increasing reading, as e-books are cheap, portable en mass, and instantly available. I also speculate – based on the two previous blogposts I did on this subject, and the wide range of comments received – that readers, given the choice, would like to have both formats – the e-book to take on travels long or short, and to read to see if the book is one you might want to keep; and the paper book for favourites, gifts, cozy reading at home (in bed and bath, for instance). There are also some who say that screen reading bothers their eyes, though others are grateful for the power to enlarge type.

The hazards of keeping books in e-form only can be summed up in one sentence: Would you keep your will in e-form only? (No: a)It could be hacked and changed. b) With internet failures – electrical shortages, solar-flare meltdowns, internet failure or overload, computer and backup failure, changes in technology that render previous forms unreadable – your will could disappear. c) Your will would not be a legal document.) And, as we have seen, your e-book can suddenly vanish from your e-reader, deleted by the e-company.

The Internet is dependent on energy, and energy is still dependent on oil.

So, looking down the path towards the future: unless the world solves the dreaded oil/pollution/global warming problem, e-forms—though convenient – are not totally reliable. (Neither are paper books. Over the centuries, millions have been burned….)

One other advantage to paper books: They make it much harder for anyone else to track what you’ve been reading.


This is from near the beginning of the Rochester Institute speech:

“What people usually mean when they start talking about “the future of reading” is not really reading at all, but different methods of transmitting and preserving texts. They want to skip any palaver about alphabets and such, and get straight to whether the paper book as we have known it since Gutenberg is about to go the way of the cuneiform clay tablet and the scroll. They want to leap to the Kindle, and to the Sony Reader, and to the Kobo and the Nook, and thus to e-books, and internet theft, and to what all of this e-energy might do, not to reading as such, but to publishing, and thus to the author’s ability to make even the sort of paltry living that most authors do in fact make, if they make any living at all. And we shall indeed discuss these matters in due time, for I am as interested in them as anyone. Well, maybe not quite as interested, because at my age I’m not looking at an infinite vista down which there lurks some sort of e-troll that might leap out of an e-shrub and tear apart my paper life, and utterly destroy my prospects in twenty-five years’ time. I don’t worry much about that twenty-five-year timeline. Just get me through the next ten without undue attrition, and add in a footnote in which I avoid the print equivalent of drooling and babbling and wandering into strange parking lots, and I will be sufficiently content. It’s beginning to be flattering to be told I am really amazing for my age.

But the young – among which I number all of you – for the young it is a different business. All of this e-stuff might seriously affect the shape of a young’s future life. Such a young might have to throw over his or her dreams of being, say, Norman Mailer, or Joyce Carol Oates, or even Chekhov or Alice Munro or Jane Austen or William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf or … but the list is very long indeed. Let’s just say that, in view of developing conditions, such a young might decide to go into dentistry or chartered accountancy, just as its parents would have preferred, instead to hi-ho-ing off to Paris or Spain or Mexico or the wilds of Cleveland to hole up in a garret or cellar or creative writing workshop in order to write masterpieces. For what good is a masterpiece if you are unable to enter the immortality and/or big publisher’s advance sweepstakes?  If, in a word, you are unable to publish it? Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it? Does a manuscript that lies in a drawer unread have any real existence in the world?”

And at the end of the speech, I thanked my 97-year-old aunt, author Joyce Barkhouse  (Pit Pony), for having been one of the first people who took me seriously as a writer, and quoted – from recent newspaper article about her that mentions one of her old favourite poems, Strickland Gilliland’s “The Reading Mother:”

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be —
I had a Mother who read to me.

Will that mother soon be an e-mother? Who knows?

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be —
I had a Mother who read to me.


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