July 9, 2004

Reading at Risk from Library – um, I mean Internet

by Nick Montfort · , 3:18 pm

This is the first question for a national research agenda that is proposed by a new NEA report:

How does literature, particularly serious literary work, compete with the Internet, popular entertainment, and other increased demands on leisure time?

As someone who writes and reads serious literary work on the Internet, this question seems to be staring up at me from a puddle of its own drool. It would make about as much sense as attempting to determine how libraries compete with serious literary work.

Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, writes in his preface to this report:

Reading at Risk merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted – our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information. … most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed 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.

The funny thing is, the report does not document such a shift. There are no results pertaining to the effects of video games or the Internet on literary reading, only rhetoric without foundation.

The executive summary similarly asserts:

Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media. While no single activity is responsible for the decline of reading, the cumulative presence and availability of these alternatives have increasingly drawn Americans away from reading.

The report later admits that “frequent readers watch only slightly less TV per day than infrequent readers” and that “[i]n some cases, TV watching may have a positive impact on literary reading.” The conclusion is that “television does not seem to be the culprit.” But one must be found…

Chapter 4 begins by pointing out two examples of how life has changed since the first data was collected in 1982. (Hint, hint: These are the important changes that have caused the decline in literary reading!) One is popular access to the Internet; another is the proliferation of video games since the 1980s, “a time when Atari sets were fairly new.” The report points the finger at the Internet on page 30 and mentions elsewhere that it could “possibly” be the cause of the decline in reading, but there is simply no research result to support this. In fact, the idea is contradicted by evidence presented in the report itself.

A 2001 Gallup report, the only thing linking book reading and Internet use, is cited; it concluded that Internet users read just as many books as non-Internet users. Of course, if you’re willing to take into account that the reading they do online counts as reading — obvious as that should be — they’re reading much more.

Still, the report thinks the Internet did it! After all, “[d]uring the time period when the literature participation rates declined, home Internet use soared.” Sure, there’s been massive consolidation of book publishers during that time, and cell phone use also has really taken off, but why not peg it on the Internet, since, after all, that was something than changed between 1982 and 2002? Well, it gets better! “home Internet users have a similar profile to literary readers.” Of course, that couldn’t result from an underlying factor like wealth, education, or available leisure time — it must be that book readers have been fleeing in droves. I would have to agree with the report’s note that “this pattern of falling literary reading rates timed with rising home Internet use may only be coincidental.”

There was in fact a single survey question that did pertain to digital media. It actually didn’t deal with competition between literature and the Internet at all. It simply revealed that “9 percent [of all people surveyed] used the Internet to learn about, read, or discuss topics related to literature.” Although there’s no data from previous decades, this would presumably be up from almost zero in 1982 and not much more in 1992. Since we’re tracking trends, this is probably a relevant one to watch.

This comment in chapter 4 is certainly apropos: “The effects of mass media, particularly television, movies, and the Internet, merit further scrutiny and research.” Indeed — less baseless rhetoric and more scholarship and understanding would be welcome. Instead of assuming that there’s only competition between different media, why not pose a national research agenda question like this one:

What role can literature play in a changing technological, media, and work environment, and how can it live on and develop in new ways, orally, in print, and digitally?

In case any literary readers suspicious of the Internet end up making it this far, here’s some serious literature:

The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot / Blue Company / Galatea / Photopia / Reagan Library / The Unknown

13 Responses to “Reading at Risk from Library – um, I mean Internet”


  1. nick Says:

    This, I think, is an admirable remark, suggesting we shouldn’t just to the “competition” conclusion so quickly:

    Sven Birkerts, the author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), cautioned against interpreting the decline in purely quantitative terms, “as in, time given to the screen is time away from books.” He cited the pervasive cultural changes wrought by “the great momentum that underlies our turn to all things digital,” as he put it in an e-mail message.

    (Quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

  2. Christy Says:

    On the subject of research into media usage and “competition” is an interesting report by BIGResearch published this year in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour: Simultaneous Media Usage: A Critical Consumer Orientation to Media Planning. In this report they research the phenomenon of usage of different media at the same time. They look at radio, tv, internet, newspapers and not books obviously because that is outside the scope of advertising I guess.

  3. Christy Says:

    Sorry — here’s the full reference so you can find it:
    Pilotta, J.J., Schultz, D.E., Drenik, G. and Rist, P. (2004) ‘Simultaneous Media Usage: A Critical Consumer Orientation to Media Planning’ in Journal of Consumer Behaviour, Vol. 3, 3, pp:285-292.[Online] Available at: http://www.ingenta.com/journals/browse/hsp/cbh?mode=direct

  4. John Says:

    Indeed, any reduction in the percentage of adults who read books is unfortunate and does not bode well for the future. However, do the data presented by the NEA support the conclusion drawn by the NEA (and many news sources that have reported on the study)?

    The NEA defines “literature” as novels, short stories, poetry, and drama. Any type of novel counts, including popular mystery novels. The definition excludes historical and biographical non-fiction, including some very high quality books being read in 2002 such as David McCullough’s “John Adams” and Joseph Ellis’s “The Founding Brothers”. While there was a decrease in percentage of adults who read books during the year, there was twice as big a decrease in the percentage of adults who read “literature”. From those statistics we can tell that there was a shift in reading habits from fiction to non-fiction. This may well be due to a growing popularity of history and biography among serious book readers. A shift in the genre of books being read from fiction to non-fiction does not support the conclusion drawn be the NEA of “an imminent cultural crisis.” The NEA report, and Mr. Gioia in public comments, repeated refer to non-readers in a way that includes those who read serious history and other non-fiction along with those who do not read books. The report offers no reason for the limitation of the “readers” classification to readers of fiction only.

    Much worse are reports in much of the press (see e.g. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5411407/site/newsweek/) of a growing number of “non-readers”, a category that apparently includes readers of serious history, biography, and other non-fiction.

    Perhaps what should alarm us is the lack of the ability to understand and analyze data, and to avoid drawing conclusions not supported by the data.

  5. andrew Says:

    I thought I’d throw this in here — from last Sunday’s NYTimes magazine cover article (currently free to read, soon to go into the paid archive):

    You can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there was a moment when people more or less stopped reading poetry and turned instead to novels, which just a few generations earlier had been considered entertainment suitable only for idle ladies of uncertain morals. The change had surely taken hold by the heyday of Dickens and Tennyson, which was the last time a poet and a novelist went head to head on the best-seller list. Someday the novel, too, will go into decline — if it hasn’t already — and will become, like poetry, a genre treasured and created by just a relative few. This won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s not too soon to wonder what the next new thing, the new literary form, might be. … It might be comic books. Seriously. Comic books are what novels used to be — an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal — and if the highbrows are right, they’re a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit. Comics are also enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability right now. In fact, the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels.

  6. grockwel: Research Notes Says:
    Moulthrop: Reagan Library
    Reagan Library by Stuart Moulthrop is a hypertext which uses QuickTime VR panoramas (created in Bryce 3D) with text that is assembled and therefore changes on different visits. A very simple and clean paradigm. I found this on Grand Text…

  7. Read/Write Web Says:
    A New Kind of Literacy
    Note: This post is also available in audio format (.wav file, 2.9MB). “Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline” announced the headline at the National Endowment for the Arts website on 8 July 2004. On that day the NEA published a report…

  8. eBookCulture.com Says:
    A New Kind of Literacy
    Cross-posted at Read/Write Web, my personal weblog. “Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline” announced the headline at the National Endowment for the Arts website on 8 July 2004. On that day the NEA published a report entitled “Reading at Risk” (PDF),…

  9. Laura Wadley Says:

    It strikes me that someone who thinks people use the Internet–as a rule–to read serious literature would also think that seeing the Brad Pitt version of “Troy” would be just as good as reading “The Iliad.”

  10. nick Says:

    Laura, I have to say that I think your comparison is completely unsound. The question of whether people in general, “as a rule,” use the Internet for reading serious literature, or whether they mainly use it for doing other things, is simply a demographic one. The question of whether seeing the film Troy is “just as good as” reading Homer is an aesthetic one. There’s no reason why someone who believes the former would believe the latter.

    (Out of curiosity, I would like to know how you think the aesthetic experience of reading Stephen King’s The Shining compares to seeing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Do you rate every book as better than the corresponding film? And how would you rate hearing Stanley Lombardo perform part of his translation of The Iliad, in a way that may be something like the performance of Ancient Greek bards, with the experience of reading his translation in a codex, an experience which was unknown to those who first encountered The Iliad? I don’t think this has anything to do with reading serious literature online, but since you made that comparison, these questions did come to mind.)

    I have to note that neither I nor anyone else I know has claimed that most Internet access is for the reading of serious literature. However, I and many others are aware that the literary dimension of the Internet is important. I don’t think people “as a rule” read serious literature in print – more often they’re reading newspaper and magazine articles, or not-very-serious paperbacks – but I remain very interested in the literary uses of the book, and I am interested in the way the Internet can be literary as well.

    I assume you never looked at the six links I provided to online literary works; I don’t think people who have read those works would jump to the same conclusions you did. Unfortunately, local librarians aren’t generally exposed to literature online through the usual channels. Many library users see the Web as something to consult for news, reference information, or, I suppose, less savory material, so they don’t often bring this dimension of the Internet to their attention. Librarians could perpetuate the myth that the Internet doesn’t really have any literary uses, but I hope that you and others will take the attitude of openness that the librarians I work with at Penn seem to have, and see that you can work to foster the literary uses of the computer instead of being dismissive of them.

  11. Laura Wadley Says:

    Nick: Point well taken. In my library work I mostly see children using the Internet to play games on cartoonnetwork.com. When I said “as a rule” I meant that if the reader used the Internet as his exclusive access to literature he would miss much. I don’t see anyone at the library using the Internet to access literature; most young people refuse to read, sometimes very loudly, when told they need to choose a book before they get on the computer. Given what I see every day, five days a week, I find it absurd that anyone would say that someone who believes Internet use is having a deleterious effect on reading in this country is speaking from a puddle of his own drool. Many of the children we see know how to operate the computer, but don’t know how to tell time so they know when to log off.

  12. nick Says:

    Laura, it’s good to learn about your experience, since this helps me to understand more of why the Internet and literary reading are seen as opposed, and in what ways they currently may be. The report, unfortunately, doesn’t give any explanation as to why the Internet is the bad guy, and certainly doesn’t present any research result showing it is. Given that the report is careful to avoid blaming TV viewing, and given that the Internet is, among other things, a huge repository of freely accessible, largely textual information, I think Reading at Risk is unjustified in positioning the Internet as an inherently anti-literary force. I don’t blame you or others who see people using the Internet for drawing your own conclusions based on the types of usage you see, but from what I see, I find a lot of promise in the networked computer as a literary medium and as a force for reading and writing. I’m worried that this recent edict of the NEA will become a self-fulfilling prophecy that saps this promise.

    People I know do use the Internet to discuss literature (on blogs and mailing lists), to order literary and other books, and to read literary works, including both electronic literature that wouldn’t be possible in print and a range of poems that would be hard to access in any other way. These are people with lots of experience in and expertise at the use of computers, true, but this is, still, a mode of use that I see.

    My experience with children’s computer use is much more limited than yours, but from the little I’ve seen, I’m hopeful about the computer as a force for children’s reading and writing as well. I asked second and third grade students to write using computers, and using software I developed, when I was working on my masters. What I saw (admittedly, these were also students who had a lot of previous experience with computers and had computers at home) led me to believe that young people who are capable of writing with a pen or pencil, but who still found the mechanics of writing to be a bit difficult, can express themselves more fluently by typing on a computer. I think they can become better creative writers by using computers and can have more fun writing in this way. In terms of reading, I see the computer as providing a way for children, who are very strongly targeted by advertisers, to take more initiative in choosing from a broad range of media to view or read – something a public library can do, too. Perhaps it’s not encouraging that they currently hop directly over to the Cartoon Network, but society is still negotiating how the Internet can provide media choices that are broad and suitable for children. The safe online options for children today look, unfortunately, like the corporate nightmare of the Internet that many people thought would result from the influx of commercial interests. I hope that those options can grow up, though.

    Although I was discouraged at first by the fact that only experienced users seem to get much literary benefit out of the computer, I suppose that’s not really the worst possible situation. If literary use were a passing fad, something only done when the computer is a novelty, that would be much more troubling. As people gain the mastery and access to computing that allows them to do what they want, when they want, on the network, I’m hopeful that they will do what the people I know have done, and choose to participate in culturally enriching activities online, to access and create not only useful information, but also literature. I don’t want the advocates of literary reading to be looking for ways to beat the Internet; I want us to see the Internet as an opportunity to further access to literature and to enable new sorts of literary creation, and for us to help find ways for the Internet to do this more effectively.

  13. purple motes » reading at risk, seriously Says:

    [...] cline in literary reading that the NEA and many concerned persons, including some who note various flaws in the NEA report other than the lack o [...]

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