Reading as Technological Revolution

This is the conundrum, the gorilla in the midst of any conversation about literature in contemporary culture, the question of dilution and refraction, of whether and how books matter, of the impact they can have. We talk about the need to read, about reading at risk, about reluctant readers (mostly preadolescent and adolescent boys such as Noah), but we seem unwilling to confront the fallout of one simple observation: literature doesn’t, can’t, have the influence it once did. For Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who made me want to be a writer, the culprit was television. “When I started out,” he recalled in 1997, “it was possible to make a living as a freelance writer of fiction, and live out of your mailbox, because it was still the golden age of magazines, and it looked as though that could go on forever. . . . Then television, with no malice whatsoever — just a better buy for advertisers — knocked the magazines out of business.” For new media reactionaries such as Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen, the problem is technology, the endless distractions of the Internet, the breakdown of authority in an age of blogs and Twitter, the collapse of narrative in a hyperlinked, multi-networked world. What this argument overlooks, of course, is that literary culture as we know it was the product of a technological revolution, one that began with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. We take books and mass literacy for granted, but in reality, they are a recent iteration, going back not even a millennium. Less than four hundred years ago — barely a century and a half after Gutenberg — John Milton could still pride himself without exaggeration on having read every book then available, the entire history of written thought accessible to a single mind. When I was in college, a friend and I worked on a short film, never finished, in which Milton somehow found himself brought forward in time to lower Manhattan’s Strand bookstore, where the sheer volume of titles (“18 Miles of Books” is the store’s slogan) provoked a kind of mental overload, causing him to run screaming from the store out into Broadway, only to be struck down by a New York City bus.

— David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading, p. 4-5

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