20 December 2007

Twilight of the Bard?

Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the current New Yorker is rather typical of articles about changing literacy in that it emphasizes the negative. Changes can only be for the worse, that implies. The title’s term “twilight” connotes that as the book passes away we will enter a period of darkness--ironic, since what’s supposedly replacing it are screens displaying pictures made of light.

That pessimistic attitude is also apparent in passages like this:

The Department of Education found that reading skills have improved moderately among fourth and eighth graders in the past decade and a half, with the largest jump occurring just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but twelfth graders seem to be taking after their elders. Their reading scores fell an average of six points between 1992 and 2005, and the share of proficient twelfth-grade readers dropped from forty per cent to thirty-five per cent. The steepest declines were in “reading for literary experience”--the kind that involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works,” in the words of the department’s test-makers.
It would be easy to miss because the passage devotes so many more words to bad news, but between 1992 and 2003 most of the American students tested improved their reading scores. (Most of those years, and most of that improvement, occurred during the overall economic growth of the Clinton years.)

That passage also reveals how for a lot of us, especially the folks who write and interpret reading tests, “literary experience” has seized all the qualities of stories for itself. But “themes, events, characters, settings, and...language“ are not exclusive to the written word. They’re aspects of stories, of whatever kind and in whatever format.

Our mass print culture is in fact an anomaly--a wonderful anomaly, but by no means typical or natural. Printing technology began to spread only in the late 1400s, and reached all parts of the globe only in the last century. Humans were seeking to experience the qualities we now tend to think of as “literary” for millennia before that.

In fact, I rather suspect that when written literature began to displace orally transmitted stories, some pessimists complained that this new format just wasn’t the same. “Writing down The Odyssey? How can that bunch of scrolls replace the wonderful experience of the whole village gathering around the fire to listen to the visiting poet? How can a text, pinned down on parchment like a wounded boar, be as lively as a performance adjusted for the audience and the occasion?”

And the shift from pictograph writing to abstract symbols? “That squiggle doesn’t look like anything! When we draw a bird, everyone can see it’s a bird! You get an immediate, unescapable sense of ‘bird.’ How can a few squiggles be as evocative?” (See the process at Prof. Mark Liberman’s Linguistics 001 site.)

And those complaints would technically have been right, just as Crain and the researchers he cites are right. Pictographs do work differently from alphabet symbols, and hearing a story performed is different from reading it through those alphabet symbols (or through pictographs). The ways in which reading is different from other ways of taking in information comprise the most interesting parts of Crain’s article, and I’ll rave on about some of those tomorrow. But for today, I just want to say that a different way of taking in stories isn’t necessarily an inferior one, at least in every respect.


fusenumber8 said...

That Department of Education statistic you cited came to my attention when Motoko Rich wrote an article for the Times saying that Harry Potter had done nothing to improve reading levels. Her evidence was that the percentage of children who stop reading for pleasure as teens has never changed. This studiously ignored the number of children reading at all and whether that meant that more teens were still reading for pleasure, even if the drop off percentage stayed the same. But then again, this was during the height of the let's-write-any-article-on-Harry-we-can-find days before the 7th book came out, so you can't blame her for trying something new. Plus, she might have been right. It's just impossible to say when you stick Harry's name onto statistics that aren't meant to support anything but their own findings.

J. L. Bell said...

The issue of Entertainment Weekly that arrived at my home this week contained just the opposite take on Harry Potter, saying that series had popularized reading again. Who knows?

When newspapers announce the results of reading studies, I always look at how the researchers have defined their parameters.

For instance, an NEA study a coupla years ago found that fewer Americans were reading literature, but then defined literature to exclude nonfiction. That meant biography, history, philosophy, and many other traditional branches of literature simply didn’t count. Since some of those categories are disproportionately popular with men while fiction is disproportionately popular with women, the study found an unusually small percentage of men reading.

Studies also tend to ask people what they're reading in their spare time or for pleasure, which means that teenagers who've chosen AP English because they like reading and are making their way through Dostoyevsky don't get that counted.

Finally, studies usually ask only about reading books. They often conclude young people are spending more of their time online than reading. Left unsaid is how the online world is still largely verbal, and email almost completely so. So "spending time online" comes down to "reading a whole lot, except not books."