Robert Darnton: Relax, reading will survive.


Our brains are safe.

A couple months ago, we posted Robert Darnton‘s consideration of whether the blogosphere was born in the French Enlightenment, with the nouvellistes. This month, over at “A Piece of Monologue,” he discusses “Open Access,” Google Book Search, the Gutenberg-e project, and that eternal question – is the internet destroying our brains?  He rather thinks not:

Do you think devices like the Apple iPad or Amazon’s Kindle will change the way we read long-term? And if so, how?

The short answer would be ‘Yes’, but then you could say ‘How?’, as you just did, and I don’t have an answer to that one. … I think it’s thrilling that the reader, or user, can experience these texts in multi-dimensions. You can take texts in through your ears as well as your eyes, and for me that’s a huge advance.

But how will it change reading? I honestly don’t know, but I’m often told ‘Don’t be naive, there are losses today in the way people read, especially when they read online’. The cover-to-cover deep reading that was typical of my generation when we were students is now almost extinct, and instead you’ve got superficial reading: reading snippets and tweets and cutting texts up into tiny units that really prevent any appreciation of the whole sweep of a text. I have one half-answer to that, which isn’t adequate but I think deserves consideration. And that is, first of all, that this cover-to-cover deep reading shouldn’t be exaggerated as something that occurred in the past. We have learned a lot about the history of reading, which is one of the aspects of the history of books that we’re trying to develop, and one thing we have learned is that, for example, sixteenth-century humanists rarely read a book from cover to cover. They were reading what we today would call ‘snippets’, or even ‘tweets’, they were taking –

As in the Commonplace Books?

That’s right. They were taking short passages out, copying them into Commonplace Books, and using those passages for various purposes, often rhetorical battles at court by their patrons, or what ever it was. But this was not reading in the way that we like to imagine it. Now, of course, deep reading also did take place. I’m not denying that for a minute. But I’m not sure that we can assume that it was typical.

Read the rest here.


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