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Teaching and reading literature in the digital age

In an age of digital formats, quick texts (and the associated degradation of spelling and grammar), online content, blogs and posts, many in the education, publishing and library sectors — as well as broader cultural institutions — are wondering and worrying about the future of literature.

There was a time when, as a society, the only way we could truly experience the lives of others was through poetry, plays and novels — literature. In the mid-1800s installments of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers sold on average 35,000 a month. At its zenith his Old Curiosity Shop was selling 100,000 installments a month. When combined with the fact that many illiterate working class people would attend informal readings of the supplements in barber-shops, lodging houses as well as a few less salubrious locales, one can barely overstate Dickens’s popularity.

Novelists and storytellers used to be our only means of developing broad empathy — insight into the lives and minds of others; finding along the way perhaps points of symmetry and similarity with our own lives. Today it is as simple as opening up Instagram, finding an interesting Tumblr post or Reddit thread. Making an extreme reduction then:

Do we still need literature?

And if so, how do we continue teaching and deriving the pleasure, learning, sympatico and intellectual development it promises?

A general decline in reading literature?

In trying to discover the true cognitive, emotional or social benefits of reading literature I came across some dicey commentary (which I shall not reward with a backlink here) and research linking reading with well-being etc. I’m not convinced of the causal direction in these papers — surely people who have time to read, or have a wide access to a variety of books, or who come from families who value reading — are also, sociologically speaking, more likely to have income levels and environmental circumstances that tend to make them comparatively happy?

Fortunately, there are a few more scientifically-oriented papers that link reading literature less with well-being than with what is referred to as “a theory of mind”, where one’s ability to map the brain states of others is increased through reading literature, leading to “improved socials skills, including emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and extroversion.”

There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that successful people have nurtured a reading habit from their early days as entrepreneurs, students or young adults. Bill Gates supposedly reads a book a week and Warren Buffet apparently read between 600 - 1000 pages a day in his early career and still spends 80% of his day reading. Book knowledge is indeed power in these instances, it seems.

Having said that, literature does not feature prominently in these reading lists, with biographies, historical, sociological and economic topics dominating. When pressed, however, a few “ultra” successful people list novels such as Moby Dick, War & Peace and Why Does the Caged Bird Sing? in their lists.

In 2002, the National Endowment of the Arts had bad news for educators and society at large: For the first time in modern history, less than half the adult population [of the US] was reading literature. Not only was reading declining, but the decline was accelerating, most prominently among 18-34 year-olds.

1982 1992 2002
% of U.S. Adult Population Reading Literature 56.9 54.0 46.7
Number of Literary Readers (in millions) 96 100 96

Reading the report (now 17 years-old) is an exercise in digital whimsy; an almost amusing retrospective on how institutions of the day regarded digital media:

“Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement. Indeed, reading itself is a progressive skill that depends on years of education and practice. By contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification. To lose such intellectual capabilities—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.” NEA, Reading at Risk, 2002.

Not really. Things just moved online

Today we of course know that online content can be as engaging, educational, useful, empowering and challenging as books and novels, and we also know that literacy and reading literature are not necessarily exclusively, and causally linked. Having been produced before the tremendous strides by Kindle, Nook and others the report also does not distinguish between reading e-books and paper books. Nonetheless, it is an interesting starting point to explore the literary reading habits and preferences of young people today — and more interestingly how technology is affecting, encouraging and growing cohort of literature readers.

By 2018 the NEA had much better news. They reported significant upward trends in literary reading among all age-groups and demographics. Pertinently, the most dramatic turnaround was found in the youngest group (ages 18-24) where previously literary reading was in a 20 percent decline in 2002, by 2008 this group reflected a 21 percent increase. I’m no statistician, but I think that boils down to a 1% improvement on reading habits from 2002, keeping in mind population growth, but the arrest of the decline at the very least. Perhaps a glaring error in the survey is the fact that researchers did not mine for the reasons young people are reading more; but the report does make a few assumptions.

The NEA is generous in attributing credit for the sea-change: while interventions such as NEA’s Big Read program made swift and extensive strides in partnering with schools, libraries and “grassroots” cultural organisations, they also attribute the growth in literary reading to social media and other communication and education technologies.

Consider this phenomenon: In 2015, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur (with 3 million Instagram followers) created a minor tectonic event in publishing circles by selling over 2 million copies of her first printed collection Milk and Honey — lasting a staggering 85 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Poets like Kaur, as well as Warsan Shire, Cleo Wade, and Nayyirah Waheed make extensive use of social media to promote and share their work, riding a surging wave of interest in spoken word and poetry among Millennials.

...And then back on paper

Further interesting research has begun to unearth a trend among younger Millennials, where physical books are valued far more than their e-book counterparts. Reasons range from the nostalgia of paging through their old children's books, and the inherent material quality of analogue content (the vinyl music surge being another component of this trend) to the ease of sharing physical books with friends compared to the restrictions e-readers place on sharing.

Underpinning these trends is the spatial notion of “the third place”, a space that is between home and the workplace. Many bookshops, cafes, theaters and libraries are embracing this trend, allowing a welcome respite from digital content and communion — and in the process advancing a modern version of the Dickensian-style group readings I described in the introduction.

The implications of teaching literature in HE today

The educational possibilities within the world of physical books, library artifacts, fiction and classic literature have only just begun to be explored by pioneering pedagogues who are developing multi-disciplinary courses (primarily in higher education) that take an agile approach to studying the humanities.

Using technology that assists students to delve into fictional texts in both vertical, and horizontal ways, educators are reviving both the context and the content of classic literature for contemporary students.

Join me next time where I will continue this exploration, and we will discuss cutting-edge educational concepts and programs such as distant reading, digital humanities, digital archives, BookTraces and the Digital Research & Writing Lab.

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