The Sociology of Reading

Peter Brantley of California Digital Library has posted an intriguing essay about Books and Fragments, writing that:

…oral recitation has been around for a longer time, and is probably more immersive than reading. Arguably, books are a reduction in the kind of required focus that was a once a foundation in the comprehension and sharing of significant cultural assets…. On the personal side, I realize that – at least recently – I have been reading fewer books. … Naturally, the world is now surrounded with short bits of information. Video, audio, text are all being managed in short segments… think we need to be actively designing our systems to support a world of text mashups, just as we might for video and audio. I think this has huge ramifications for ebooks, because it suggests that the mere translation of the “book” to an electronic format – whether on a reader or in a digital library – is misguided…

I tend to agree with Peter’s perspective, but my take on this is somewhat sociologically-based. I believe the written linear narrative is partially a technical hack, which has recently been surpassed by more modern technologies. Let me try to explain.
Story-telling has been the primary form of communication during the vast majority of our evolution as a species. Biologically, we are evolved to listen/watch as people tell stories (in the broad sense that’s inclusive of dramatics and music), not to read books.
But story-telling in all these forms is typically available only at a few specific times and from a few specific people. 500 years ago the novel was a clever hack that allowed a person to communicate over distances or with many others. Until then, there was no other popular form of on-demand solo entertainment.
In the last century or so other forms of distance and 1:many communication have become popular. And in recent decades video and software have become effective forms of on-demand solo entertainment. So it’s logical to me that some portion of the leisure time that was spent in reading by past generations will in the future be spent consuming other forms of content. This is counter-balanced to some degree by other trends including increased access to written works and increase in overall leisure time, but it seems obvious that the net trend will be to less “entertainment reading”. It seems likely that the ultimate distribution of entertainment-oriented information consumption will not be reached until all consumers have lived their entire lives with VCRs, cable TV, and console games. Those of us who are older than 35 or so are still acculturated to reading as the primary form of on-demand self-entertainment.
A recent study supports this thesis: in the U.S. we now spend on average more than 19 hours weekly just on T.V., and less than 6 hours weekly on reading of any form.
Again Peter is asking deeper questions about the kinds of reading that will be occuring in the future. I have unfortunately found almost no hard data about trends in this area.

2 Responses to The Sociology of Reading

  1. Bill McDaniel says:

    I have been speaking and writing for a few years now about the fact that we may be entering what I call the “post literate” age. A time when traditional literacy, as we’ve understood it for seveal centuries, is being replaced with a new literacy which is a return to a more visual and immersive style.
    Some of this thinking has even informed our work on setting a vision for the future of Digital Imaging and Video here at Adobe.
    Your comment about the novel being a clever hack is spot on.
    Essentially, you can even take the position that writing, to some degree, evolved to help us get around the reproduction and distribution problems of the “speaker in the forum”, as I refer to it.
    This implies that we are actually more visual animals and one can imagine that, over time and generations, the use of novel, of literature, to tell stories may fade as more immediate, visual, and visceral forms of communication become economical and ubiquitous.
    I’ll have to look into Brantley’s work. I used to cause quite a stir when I suggested to printers, publishers, and ‘word people’ that our children and grandchildren may be part of this post literacy and that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing.

  2. Judy Diliberto says:

    Marshall McLuhan said it a long time ago: The medium is the message. Interesting now to determine the effect, at all levels, of this post literacy, not just in fiction but non fiction as well.