Has literary culture met its (digital) match?

After a dissertation chapter writing induced absence, and after puzzling over a stack of student papers, I'm truly left wondering where in the world reading has gone. Then, as fate would have it, I read this article by Dick Meyer on NPR's website and was pleased that I'm not the only one thinking about the future (or potential lack thereof) of literary culture.

I'm not just saying that because my profession, or, intended profession, holds books in the highest regard. True, I'm making, and hopefully will continue to make barring a wider economic collapse, a living reading books and talking about them, writing about some of them myself, and getting (well, "making," I suppose is more correct) others talk, write, and think about some of them as well.  But it's troubling, at the very least, to think of a world without a newspaper to pick up from the corner store or actual, physical books to go buy. Does a digital revolution, where information is readily accessible from just about anywhere, mean that literary culture will eventually die off?  Or, does the digital revolution mean we have to evolve our definition of "literary culture" to include the digital world?  And, just as important, what are the affects of this shift?  Not just in terms of how people get their information, but how they process it?

I realize the irony of this post: at the same time as I'm writing about a culture I love, I'm writing a post on a blog for people to read (hopefully)--people I've never met (mostly) and probably never will (but thanks for stopping by, truly).  I'm actively participating in destroying or changing (depending on your point of view) a culture on which my livelihood depends, to an extent.  I'm somewhat comforted by the fact that I'm in my office surrounded by the 400-some books that I own.  I've not drifted too far afield, I don't think.

What I can see the loss of literary culture doing, from the past five and a half years teaching composition to first year college students, is that generally speaking, students are less prepared to think critically and less prepared to research properly.  Part of this, surely, comes from a shift in educational practices: students in high school, and probably well before, are too often taught to a test, be it the SAT or an AP exam or any of the standardized testing that accompanies NCLB.  While, to a certain extent, that kind of teaching is necessary, it ultimately robs the student of his or her desire to think critically about issues and problems and to think originally.  I can't tell you how many times I've given an open-ended writing assignment and have had a fair number of my students panic "because there's no prompt."

But the prompt they so often look for should be the book, or newspaper article, or short story, or poem they hold in their hands.  But how often do we, culturally, value that book, article, story or poem?

This study by the National Endowment for the Arts (it's #47) shows that voluntary reading has declined. When voluntary reading declines, literary culture declines, and we all, I think, suffer.  We lose not only an understanding of how literary culture itself has evolved--an interesting story in its own right--but we also lose, bit by bit, an avenue of communication.  Thinking critically about a newspaper article doesn't have to be something relegated to an English class.  It could simply be reading it and thinking to yourself, "How does this matter to me/my life/my family/my neighborhood?"  If we lose these questions, and their possible answers, we lose the ability to be dynamic, active participants in society.  Instead of thinking and doing something about the "why" to an issue, we will be content to know simply the "what" and leave the "why" to someone else, if they're willing to do anything about it.

Significantly, too, we lose the physicality of the actual object. Being able to hold in your hands, if you're willing to take it out of the plastic, an 1875 guidebook to the city of Philadelphia, say, allows you in your own way to connect with something that precedes you in a way you can't if you were to look at images only on a computer screen.  Yes, that guidebook and other old books are old and fragile and falling apart.  But that, I think, is part of the great thing about them.  Those books have lives that we can't even begin to imagine, and to lose those possible stories along with the actual artifacts would be a cultural tragedy.  Imagine, if in a hundred years, someone picks up a DVD copy (or whatever its equivalent would be) of "The DaVinci Code" and thinks "Gosh, that was an unnecessarily long movie. And what was with Tom Hanks' hair?"  But wouldn't it be nice if they had the book to also pick up, dust off, perhaps take out of a protective plastic sleeve and find the narrative (and its more intriguing pace) that way.

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